ROMANTIC VENTURE (chap 25-last)

ROMANTIC VENTURE

CHAPTER TWENTY-FIVE

Maurette dabbed at her puffy eyes. She did not wish Lydia to see she had been crying. Applying a cooling cloth to her cheeks, Maurette perused her face in a hand glass before setting it down with a resigned clunk.

Kitty was clearing away the dishes from the noon meal, and she eyed her mistress with concern. Maurette had barely touched the food. Kitty wondered what had transpired on Maurette’s tour with Jonathan. She wondered if the skinny lout had said something to upset her. If he had, Kitty decided, she would skin him and toss his smarmy flesh into the sea. With resolute stiffness the girl picked up the heavy tray on which she carried the debris of the meal and marched from the room. She returned a few moments later and moved to her mistress.

“Could I do anything, my lady?” she said.

Maurette never ceased to be amazed by Kitty’s newly acquired eloquence. The girl spoke as well as any lady of Maurette’s acquaintance, and garbed in one of Maurette’s made-over gowns, she looked the part of the refined ladies-in-waiting that graced the finest houses in London.

Maurette placed her hand on Kitty’s smooth cheek and smiled ruefully. Her life was not totally in vain as long as Kitty reminded her of her usefulness.

“I must needs face a dragon today Kit,” Maurette said gently.

Kitty’s eyes widened and then narrowed aggressively. “Jonathan,” she stated pointedly.

Maurette laughed softly. “Oh no, not Jonathan, Kit. I must face this household and traditions of which I have no knowledge,” she said sadly. “And I must face my own lack of worth in this household, except perhaps as your tutor,” she added with a forced brightness.” ‘Tis not easy, Kit, for I am unaccustomed to uselessness.” She bowed her head.

“You are not useless,” said Kitty staunchly. “Why, where would I be if you had not come to these environs. I shall tell you where I would be-in the laundry with Ruth, is where. And I shall tell you something else,” she said, dropping to her knees before her mistress. “Everything has changed here since you arrived. Everyone has a new and brighter outlook upon their life here. For so long we have been an austere household. You appear at dinner, and the whole castle brightens. Not one among us doesn’t pray each night that our master will take you to wife. You are well loved, my lady. To be the creator of an atmosphere of hope and happiness is no small thing.”

“You are right, dear Kit. I had no idea that my presence here had become of any import at all.” Maurette smiled gently. “And to think my cause is so notable is more responsibility than I had ever hoped to bear.”

Kitty raised herself and joined Maurette in a smile. “You jest with me, my lady, and imagine I exaggerate, but your sojourn with Jonathan today and your visit to the kitchen have caused much bright conversation among the servants.”

“They know of it already?”

“In fact it has given them new hope that we may soon have a new mistress,” Kitty said.

“Do they not admire Lady Hamilton, Kit? “It was my impression that she was absolutely deferred to in every instance. One young mistress even seemed to defend her with some aggression.”

Kitty stiffened. “Was it admiration you detected, or a warning, my lady?” she said evenly.

Maurette regarded the girl in astonishment. “A warning?”

Kitty nodded slowly. “We defer to the lady, naturally. She is chatelaine here, but that deference does not indicate devotion.” Kitty took Maurette’s hand in hers in an abrupt change of attitude. “Shall I stay with you, my lady?”

“I would have you tell me what you meant by your last remark, Kit.”

“I have said more than I intended, my lady.” She held Maurette’s hand tightly clasped in hers. “Please forgive my air of mystery.”

“I do, Kit,” Maurette said. “I shall not press you. And, no,” she added, brushing Kitty’s hand with a fond kiss, “you need not stay.”

The girl left then, deciding that she would like to skin not Jonathan but another dragon of her acquaintance.

A few moments passed in which Maurette managed to compose herself. She brushed at her hair, which had fallen in tender wisps about her face during her busy morning. She applied a bit of color to her cheeks. Inspecting the results in the cheval glass, she decided that she resembled no victim. She would face Lydia this day and win.

Lydia entered and gazed insolently at Maurette. “You wished me to attend you, Maurette,” she said, closing the chamber door. “I was rather surprised by your request. “‘Twas your own suggestion that we avoid each other’s company.”

Maurette allowed herself a small pause before she dealt with Lydia’s patronization. “Jonathan tells me that there is not money allotted to expenditures for the household,” she said flatly.

“You do get right to the point,” said Lydia, sitting without invitation on the settee near the fire. “Yes,” she said evenly shifting her bony frame so that she was looking directly at Maurette. “I advised Jonathan that you were to he authorized no funds for whatever it is you plan for this house. ‘Tis a smoothly running estate. We need not your unsolicited intervention. The servants and I are perfectly happy with things as they are.”

“But your servants are not happy,” Maurette blurted out. She quickly put her delicate fingertips to her mouth, for she knew that she had betrayed a confidence and was immediately sorry.

Lydia’s eyes narrowed. “Has your brat been pouring poison in your ear, Maurette?” she said slyly.

Maurette was immediately mobilized. “If you mean my tiring woman, Lydia, I shall demand that first you call her by her name, and second that you abandon such thoughts before they harden into all accusation.”

Lydia laughed sharply. “How you do buttress the little Bastard. ‘Tis much the talk of the household.” Lydia eyed Maurette obliquely. “Do you imagine that your protection of the child will avail her anything in the end? You will be gone within the year, and she will go back to her place in the laundry with the dimwitted Ruth. The chit’s fine learning and fancy gowns will be as nothing in that dreary environment.”

Maurette found it difficult to hold her temper. “Kit told me of her bastardy, but I did not ask her to elaborate on the details. It does not matter to me, Lydia. As to the girl’s learning, such things are never wasted. She has knowledge and skills., which will abide with her the rest of her life. Whether she works in a laundry or in a buttery, she will retain the soul of a learned woman to the end of her days. And, I would add, she will not end her days a buttery, for ’tis my intention to ask Dominic if I may take Kit with me when . . . if I leave.”

“If?” asked Lydia silkily.

“If or when, Lydia. ‘Tis no concern of yours.”

“You will concede, however, that running this house- hold is my concern,” she said sharply.

“I will concede that, Lydia,” said Maurette, composing herself. “And I do not, I assure you, intend to overestimate my own position here. ‘Tis only that, if Dominic and I are to invite people in, we must needs a pleasant place to entertain them.”

Lydia sighed audibly She tucked in a lank tendril of hair. “You are sadly mistaken, Maurette, if you imagine that Dominic will allow people to come trampling through his home.”

Maurette moved stiffly and stood directly before Lydia. “That is something that is to be taken up between Dominic and me, Lydia. Your authority does not extend to our private life.”

“Does it not?” asked Lydia tranquilly. “You shall see, little interloper, just how far my authority extends.”

“If you are threatening me, Lydia, you would do well to think again before you carry on. Dominic loves me, remember.”

“And he loves me,” said Lydia harshly. She stood and, towering over Maurette, she went on, “and he has much to be grateful for on my account. I attended our father for ten years while Dominic was making his valiant reputation in the court. Oh, ’tis true, I welcomed. the charge that I was given, for I loved our father, but while Dominic ranged the world and captured Turkish ships, I was here seeing to this house, to this grand estate. After our father died, who do you imagine rode out to collect the rents? Who do you imagine kept the servants in hand and kept the accounts tended?”

“Have you no deputy?” Maurette asked, attempting to calm Lydia’s ire.

“And who should be my deputy? Jonathan? The skittish lout who cringes when the servants call him Jonny? No, I have no deputy, Maurette. A.. that you see is my charge. And for my efforts, my brother loves me. He is devoted to me for my fine service on his behalf. And do you know how he has rewarded me for that fine service?” Lydia’s eyes blazed, and flecks of foam formed on her mouth. “He has rewarded me by banishing my only son, Lucius, from this estate.” Her words hung heavily in the suddenly silent chamber.

When she spoke again, her voice was very soft. “Do not count on Dominic’s ‘love,’ young innocent, too heavily, for his is a hard nature. Love tempers the cruelest of hearts, ’tis said, but I would not count on that little tenet where Dominic is concerned. Not for nothing is our crest that unholy raven.”

Maurette watched as Lydia lowered herself once more to the settee. All the anger, all the hostility seemed to have left her. Her bony hands were clasped on her lap, and her head was bowed.

“Would you tell me why your son has been banished?” asked Maurette softly.

Lydia looked up at her, and, unbelievably, her eyes were filled with tears. “I… cannot,” she said simply. “Trust me that his banishment was inequitable. No pleas of mine would soften Dominic’s heart.” Lydia’s tears flowed unbounded down her cheekbones, and her weathered face was contorted in pain. “I entreated Dominic to let me bring him back, but he would not be moved. And so I have lived, Maurette, as one abandoned – no man about to buttress the challenges of running this house, no son to comfort my lonely hours here.” She lowered her tear-shimmered gray-green eyes. “I seem hard, Maurette, and hardened I have become by the obligations of this house. But I am not the raven of our insignia. I could never match my brother’s cruelty.”

Maurette sat on the settee opposite the bowed Lydia. “Why do you stay here, Lydia? Go to where your son resides,” she said earnestly.

“Ravenshead is our home, Maurette.” She raised her eyes slowly. ” ‘Tis everything to Dominic that I am here. And, in truth, I could not live just anywhere. Dominic shields me in this house from the cruelties of the word. Though I have known cruelty here, ’tis nothing to what I might consider if I were cast out.”

Her words arched with a fragile simplicity, and Maurette’s heart went out to the raw-boned woman who sat across from her in the fire-li room. Maurette longed to ask her of her son’s banishment and of the reasons that she saw the outside world in such a fearsome perspective, but she allayed her questions. She would ask them at another time…perhaps.

Rising, Lydia swiped at her moistened cheeks. “Have your cleansing and your parties, then, Maurette. If Dominic wishes it, I will offer no resistance. Let me add, however, that my resistance was Dominic’s absolution where you were concerned. Now you will deal with him, directly. And I will warn you that my contention is as a drop of dew on a stone at dawn compared to that you will face in Dominic Warbrooke.” She turned tiredly then and left the room.

Maurette shivered involuntarily. She attempted to compare the gentle lover, the sweet poet of the night before, to the unyielding tyrant of Lydia’s description. She could not. Moving to the window, Maurette pushed back the hangings and gazed out upon the blue sky. Perhaps a walk would gentle the disquietude of her soul.

ROMANTIC VENTURE

CHAPTER TWENTY-SIX

The fresh breezes were scented with sea and sunshine. Maurette thought longingly of her little mare, Melitte, and realized their rapturous gallops through the open fields at Islington. Heedless of all care, they would rush headlong into the wind. Maurette longed desperately to feel that same sense of joyous abandon, to watch as the grassy earth sped by beneath Melitte’s sure hooves, and to laugh joyously and duck as overhanging trees swept by. Lost in her musings, Maurette realized that looming before her in the towering curtain wall was the massive portcullis that closed the castle off from the world. The ugly iron gate made her feel confined and cut off from the freedom that she loved and had always known.

Without thinking, Maurette ran to the structure and pushed at it. She beat with her fists at the unyielding metal. A man clothed in a tired livery descended the steps of the gatehouse to stand bemused near the distraught girl.

“Does m’ lady wish exit?” he asked, eyeing Maurette warily. She abated her efforts to glance over her shoulder at the man, who stood back from her in helpless uncertainty. Her pounding fists slid resignedly down the grill-work. She lowered her head.

“Would it be that easily done?” she asked quietly.

“Would what be easily done, m’um?” asked the man. He shifted uneasily in his place.

Maurette turned her back to the gate and leaned against it. She regarded the attendant with pity. The poor old creature had no idea what to make of her. He pulled a tattered bit of cloth from his sleeve and pinched at a reddened nose.

“Could I leave this place,” she asked, if I so wished?”

“0′ course, m’um,” said the guard with a smile that he hoped would reassure the distressed girl, though what she was distressed about completely eluded him. “Is that your wish, m’um?” he inquired encouragingly. “For if it is, I shall see to it.”

Maurette gazed at him for a long moment. “No,” she finally said and shook her head wearily.

The man was now completely discomfited. “If your Ladyship desires to gain exit at any time,” he said, feeling prickles of perspiration forming beneath his cloth, “ye’ve only to ask. ‘Course,” he added carefully, “before you go 0′ bangin’ on th’ gate, ye might gi’ me a little notice. Then I could have it open for ye, m’um. See, bangin’ won’t open her. I have t’ pull, and up she does that little groove. Y’ see that, m’um.” His smile deepened. It was not often he got the opportunity to explain his work to anyone. “‘At’s how she works, m’um. I pull down, ti gate goes up. “At’s what I be here fer, m’um, t’ open ti gate.” He bowed gallantly.

Maurette could have been more gallant herself, she thought, and wanted to asked the gatekeeper for a more detailed instruction on how the massive gate operated, but she merely nodded. “Yes,” she said finally. “I shall remember.”

The old man was mightily relieved when the trouble and troublesome lass had moved on. He quirked a bushy eyebrow. Strange, he thought, as he took the few steps into the gatehouse. Strangest thing he had ever encountered. “Bangin’ on a gate t’ get it open,” he chuckled. He must relate this to the other men. ‘Twould make for a evening of hearty speculation. The lady was a sweet little thing but not very smart. He uncorked a flagon and too a long draught. He hoped that Lord Dominic had not heard.

It had been bad enough for him when the old lord had gone loony. He shook his head as he replaced the cork and swiped at his mouth with a grimy forearm. The gentry never ceased to amaze and amuse him. “No promise 0′ sense does money and power bring,” he said aloud. “Perforce ’twas better to be born low in th’ long run.”

Maurette breathed a ragged sigh as she left the gatekeeper and wandered along the curtain wall of the castle. She brushed at the tears that formed on her lashes. Her humiliation was, it appeared, complete. She had succeeded in embarrassing herself before the butler, the kitchen help, and now the gatekeeper. They all knew her for the stupid, small, and useless appendage that she was. Maurette reminded herself that she had dared to imagine that she could be something to Dominic Warbrooke besides a plaything. She managed a small smile at her own expense. Dominic had brought her here for one reason only. Despite his protestations of love, he needed her not at all. How could she have fooled herself that the great and powerful lord of this entire estate desired her partnership in life? Had he ever in their acquaintance spoken with her on a serious subject? Had he ever sought her advice? She could see in her mind’s eye a vision of her mother and father, their heads together in loving conference. Maurette wished it could be that way between her and Dominic.

“Fine,” she said angrily, kicking at a pebble. She recalled her youthful dreams of sharing someone’s life as her parents had shared their lives, of loving and being loved and talking into the late hours of the night about all manner of consequential and inconsequential things. She recalled her dream of finding someone with whom to plan a future. Perhaps one day she would carry a babe. Then Dominic would be honor-bound to wed her. Perhaps then they could begin to plan a future. Maurette stopped in her thoughts. Was that the sum of her worth to a husband? Was she to be a mere vessel for his sons? And what if Dominic never married her? She thought of Imogene and the oafish Gregory. At least an oafish husband would be better than none under those conditions.

“Nay,” said Maurette aloud. She had not risked flying off with the notorious Raven and turned her life over to a man who had won her at sword point for the sole purpose of becoming a brood mare. For that, she could have wed any one of a dozen young gallants. Maurette had given herself to Dominic for one reason alone: she loved him. Love alone was the answer to her dilemma. She was secure in the belief that Dominic loved her, but the question arose as to whether or not this man, whom she hardly knew, was capable of the all-consuming love that she felt for him.

She had been told of unbelievable cruelty on the part Dominic Warbrooke. If she truly felt for him that all-consuming love that she claimed to feel, she must give him the opportunity to explain that behavior, to deny it, even. She must make him know that she wished to be a part of his life. She must force him, if necessary, to take her into his confidence. There was much for Maurette to learn about this house and its inhabitants. There were secrets here. Dominic must not be allowed to imagine that she needed to be protected from anything that was part of him.

Maurette’s chin lifted, and her shoulders squared beneath her heavy cloak. She would face him directly with the new knowledge that she had unhappily received about his nephew. Even as her resolve grew, however, uncertainty assailed her. Could she simply confront him with what, Lydia had told her? He might become enraged. He might Maurette’s thought’s trailed off. Once before, she had thought that Dominic Warbrooke was capable of killing her. She shivered, despite the sun, at the chill that clinched her limit. She wondered and realized Dominic as not apprehensive to anything she might do or say She knew him to be capable of great violence. She must tread carefully. Maurette gazed out as she walked over the expanse of the country. She had been walking for some time and realized that she was nearly to the northern end of the curtain. Sadly, she perused the massive barrier before her, rising nearly forty feet above her. Would that it could be made to disappear at her command. Beyond it the sea sounds reverberated invitingly. The little caped figure swept out a slender arm to bid the wall vanish.

Maurette laughed softly at her silly gesture but drew her breath almost immediately when her eyes rested upon an aperture in the monstrous stone wall. Realizing that the aperture was caused by the crumbling of stone, she moved cautiously toward it. Her pace quickened as she realized that she could squeeze through the opening with ease. The wall was at least nine feet thick, and as Maurette tore away at the crumbling rock, she felt as if she were traversing a small passage. She emerged on the other side with a pounding heart and looked back through the hole to see if anyone had noted her leaving. When she saw no one at the other end of the tunnel she had created, she turned to enjoy the view that her escape had afforded her. It was breathtaking.

>From a high shelf, Maurette gazed out over an expanse of jagged rock and rolling ocean. Farther out, a silver mist lay over the enduring and terrible beauty below her. Piercing the diaphanous fog, glistening, sea-smashed rocks thrust their spiked crowns skyward. Maurette felt the salt wind whipping at her and knew a freedom that she had not realized since she had entered the fortress.

She stared straight downward, where there was no mist, and her eyes fixed upon an arresting formation. Jutting out from the sheer pitch of shimmering rock was a triangular outcrop, topped by a smooth table of stone. Maurette leaned out as far as she dared but could not make put any other features in the outcropping. Farther along, a path could be seen beneath the jutting triangular table. Following the declivity with her eyes, she realized that she could reach the path if she went a little farther along the brow on which she now stood.

She stepped carefully over the craggy surface and found herself on a surprisingly traversible gravel path. She moved down slowly, passing beneath the jutting rook, and found herself finally on a secluded beach. Maurette was astonished, for it had been hidden by the high shelf outside the castle wall. The beach formed a tiny peaceful cove which she had looked down on.

Underneath her feet broken fragments of rock had been rubbed smooth by the continuous flow and ebb of the foaming water. Delightedly she watched small wavelets fling themselves recklessly onto the narrow girdle of broken shell and stone and then ripple away to be replaced by other small white-capped breakers. The gurgling dance of the little swells filled Maurette’s heart with joy She watched the pitch and toss of the pretty stretch of sunlit water and laughed when, errant ripples cascaded over her satin slippers.

The afternoon sun was warm, and Maurette lifted her face to the sky. She loosed the pins from her hair and shook her curls free to tumble in careless abandon about her shoulders. She made a game of averting the frothy billows that lapped gently at her toes. So happily intent was she on her carefree play that she did not hear the crunch of gravel on the path behind her.

It was not until she noticed pebbles rolling down the sloped beach past her to plop into the sun-kissed water that she realized that someone was on the path. She turned her head to find a young man standing behind her on a low shelf. He smiled and nodded ingratiatingly. Maurette stood stock still as he moved down toward her.

Straight white teeth flashed as his smile deepened. He was very tall, Maurette noted, and his hair was the color of rusty sand. As he neared, she saw that his eyes were a shimmering green-gray. He wore a creamy lawn shirt, open at the neck and dark brown breeches and leather boots. His shin was deeply tanned, and his whole aspect spoke of sun and sea and youthful vitality and strength. Reaching the narrow beach, he stood with his feet planted wide apart and his hands on his hips. He seemed to revel in Maurette’s awed appraisal.

“You are my uncle/s new affianced.” He said without preamble.

Maurette could not put the words together in her mind. She stood in the water, the hem of her gown sodden and dripping.

“Auntie Maurette,” he said, throwing his head back in unbridled laughter. Something about the man was so vaguely and yet so unmistakably familiar. His laughter filled the air, and Maurette felt warmed somehow and yet discomfited by the sound.

“Auntie?” she said uncertainly.

The young man offered a courtly bow. “I am Lucius Hamilton, my lady.” His words contained a tone of mockery.

“Lucius,” she gasped. At his smiling not, Maurette attempted to compose herself. “How do you do,” she said in a small voice, holding out her hand, Lucius took it and held her in his sunlit gaze. Finally, he lowered his finely etched lips to her wrist. The kiss was, Maurette felt, far too sensuous for a new acquaintance to bestow upon a lady, to say nothing of a nephew upon a potential aunt. She snatched her hand away. Moving past him and out of the water, Maurette stood on the beach and wrung out the soggy hem of her gown.

“‘Tis a lovely day,” he said, ignoring her rebuff.

“Yes,” Maurette agreed, not looking at him.

“We do not get many of these at Ravenshead.” His eyes swung out to the span of swelling sea beyond the narrow cove. Maurette chanced a reprisal of his strong profile. His jaw was clean-shaven, and his skin in the sunlight resembled polished copper. His bright gaze came around before Maurette could turn away. “We must take our pleasures when they present themselves.” He said evenly.

Maurette tore her eyes from his. She had been the target of the attentions of many young men the age of Lucius. She knew exactly how to handle them. Beyond that, this particular young man was, it would appear, trespassing upon Dominic’s land.

“‘Twould seem that we both had the same idea,” she said haughtily. Her eyes widened, and her color deepened at what her words implied. She turned a sheepish gaze in his direction, hoping desperately that Lucius had not realized her comprehension of his apparent double meaning.

He merely smiled. “You have discovered my secret,” he said gently.

“Your secret?” inquired Maurette, raising an eyebrow.

He swept out an arm to encompass the scene before them. “When life at Ravenshead becomes too complex and too confining, I disappear to this place.”

Maurette regarded him narrowly. “Life at Ravenshead? From my information, Sir, you have no life at Ravenshead.”

Lucius nodded deferentially. “Well aimed, auntie,” he said tranquilly. “You have heard then of my banishment.”

“Yes,” said Maurette, feeling very unsure of her ground. “I was told just today, in fact, and I wonder at your presence here. Has the order been revoked?”

“It has not,” he stated evenly.

It seemed he dared her to do something about his presence. His bronzed hand lay on his thigh as one booted foot came up to rest on a flat rock. The hand was lean and strong against the white cuff of his shirt. The thigh, Maurette noted with increasing discomfort, was muscular and long in the closely fitting breeches, Lucius leaned toward her, placing his forearm across his leg. The loose collar of his fell away, and she could see the dark matting of fur on his broad chest. She averted her eyes and concentrated upon her dampened slippers.

“Are you hungry?” Lucius asked softly.

Maurette cast him a quick glance. His gaze turned dark. She could not help but believe that his question referred to something other than food.

“In truth, I am,” she said evenly. “I have not eaten since this morn.”

Her delicately shaped eyebrows drew together as he held her in a hooded gaze. A long moment passed between the two young people. Maurette turned away finally, but she had no idea where to look. Diaphanous white clouds sailed silently in the shimmering sky. The ocean churned softly, waves melting in the sunlight. Gulls swooped and called as they soar over the silvered water. Her eyes returned of their own volition to the tanned faced and the sea-green eyes that regarded her levelly.

“I but offer you my company, my lady,” Lucius said softly. “There is no need for all this discomfort. I have brought a small store of food and only ask for the honor of sharing it with you.”

Maurette could not help the small chuckle that bubbled from her throat. This Lucius Hamilton was not to be put off with haughty rebuffs and verbal checkmates. He was, in truth, his uncle’s nephew. Maurette’s laughter deepened, and her head fell back. Shimmering golden curls tumbled over her shoulders and down her back. Lucius noted the delicate arch of her slender throat. The translucent skin stretched over pale blue veins, and the fragile profile was luminous in the sunlight. Dazzling lavender eyes turned on him, and his heart quickened at their intensity.

“Yes, Lucius Hamilton, I am hungry,” Maurette said gaily. “I am very hungry, and I should love to share your repast.”

“Excellent,” he said, and his gaze lightened.

He bounded with all his youthful strength up the hill and returned with a small sack. He tool Maurette’s hand and drew her along the beach to a high rock table that lay warming in the afternoon sun, and they sat upon it. Opening the cloth, he offered Maurette a piece of bread that he tore from a crusty loaf. He pulled from the interior of the sack a hunk of cheese, which he sliced crudely with his dirk. Then he drew out a flagon of wine and, with a flashing smile, held it up for Maurette’s inspection. “I believe I have thought of everything,” he said. Maurette shook her head good-naturedly. He was an ingratiating charmer, she decided.

“You have indeed, little nephew,” she said, and they both laughed as he pulled at the cork with his teeth. Taking a long draught of the wine, Maurette realized that she was beginning to feel very comfortable with this young spirited gentleman. They finished off their meal with juicy pears and, happily full, they moved from the rock to walk on the small expanse of beach. As they rounded a gentle curve in the land, Maurette saw that an inlet led fiercely out to sea.

“Most ships draw far too deeply to navigate this channel,” Lucius said, noting the direction of her gaze. “But a clever sailor in a small boat can manage it.” He placed a strong arm around her slender shoulders and pointed mid-channel. “Can you see the markers?” Maurette squinted in the late afternoon sun.

“Yes,” she said excitedly. “Yes, I see them.”

“If a navigator follows those markers exactly, they will guide him safely through that very dangerous channel. From the helm of a ship that are almost invisible, however, and ‘twould be an unfortunate mariner who tried to negotiate that piece of water unawares.”

“This place is well protected,” said Maurette.

“Yes,” said Lucius tonelessly. ” ‘Tis only those His Lordship desires within the fortress who may enter.”

Maurette eyes him piquantly. ” ‘Twould seem there are always exceptions to every rule.”

“Ah, yes,” said Lucius softly. A small smile crossed his lips.

Maurette lowered her gaze. “Can you tell me of your own circumstance, Lucius?”

He took his arm from around her shoulders and moved a few paces away. ” ‘Tis hard, Maurette, to speak of all that has happened between my uncle and me.” He turned back to face her and crossed his arms over his broad chest. ” ‘Tis true, your information, I have no life at Ravenshead. And yet Ravenshead is where my whole life, in truth, is.”

Maurette eyed him quizzically. “Your mother could not speak of your banishment. She said, however, that it was inequitable.”

” ‘Tis that,” said Lucius abruptly.

She lowered her gaze once again and turned away from him. “I intend to ask Dominic about it.”

“Do you?” Lucius said, and his face became dark. His voice took on a leonine growl. “Ask him, too, why the sun shines and why the clouds skim the horizon on a stormy day at Ravenshead.”

Maurette turned back to him. Her face showed her perplexity. “You hate him, do you not, for this perceived injustice?”

“I do,” said Lucius. His eyes glinted, and his darkened aspect pulsed with his rage. He lowered his head, for he could see the effect that his wrath was having on the gentle girl. He did not wish to nullify what they had gained so far that afternoon. His head came up slowly.

Maurette gasped inwardly. Those gray-green eyes, which were so vaguely and yet so unmistakably familiar to her, had within their depths the same ravening hatred that she had glimpsed in the Ravenshead crest. Maurette’s heart lurched in her chest. She backed away from Lucius, and as he moved to stop her flight, she bolted across the sand. Grasping her arm, Lucius jolted her to a stop. He turned her to face him. The hatred had left his eyes, and only a question remained in their softened depths.

“Why do you run from me, Maurette?” he said gently.

“I saw…they were the same…” Maurette gasped for air and tried to push away from him.

“What did you see?”

“In your eyes… the hatred.”

“Do you blame me, Maurette?” he said, grasping her shoulders. “Do you blame my hatred of terrible injustice?”

“I do not know,” she cried. “I do not know about injustice. No one will tell me. What is the injustice, Lucius?”

Maurette raised her eyes to him in a question. He smiled tenderly.

“Do you think I do not know that your first loyalty is to my uncle? He must be the one to tell you of our differences. You must needs see them from his perspective. Then, if you would hear me, I would speak of them on my own.” Lucius released her. “Tell me this, Maurette,” he inquired gently. “Are you truly happy here at Ravenshead?”

Maurette turned from him and began a slow walk across the beach. “I am not unhappy, Lucius,” she said softly.

Lucius fell into step beside her. “You are discontented then,” he said.

“Perhaps that is the word. Everyone seems to be keeping secrets from me. Your mother seems to feel a hostility toward me that I cannot fathom.”

Lucius cast his eyes out to sea. “My mother, may the gods be with her, is a fool.”

Maurette regarded him with bemusement. “How can you say that, Lucius?”

“I did not mean to offend you, Maurette,” he said hastily. ” ‘Tis only that the dear old thing rarely knows what she wants. Her obstinacy on some occasions is appalling. The one thing on which she is constant is her devotion to Dominic, or at least the care of his family home.

Maurette nodded. “She told me as much.”

“In truth, I understand her feelings. I, too, am bound to Ravenshead.”

“And yet, you are not welcome here,” Maurette said.

Lucius turned away from her, his anger rising. He did not want the events of moments before to be repeated. “No,” he stated sharply, keeping his eyes averted. “And ’tis the bane of my life.”

Maurette stopped and placed a delicate hand on his arm. “You must rein in this terrible anger, Lucius. You must speak to Dominic. I would intercede for you.”

His head came around, and he gazed down at Maurette’s upturned face. “You would do this for me?”

“I cannot promise the results, Lucius, but I can speak to Dominic on your behalf.” Maurette looked up into his clear gaze. She knew that her fears of the moment before were irrational. This young man was no feral bird of prey. Gratitude shone in his soft smile. “I shall say to Dominic that I wish him to at reevaluate his decision. That is the most I can promise, Lucius.”

” ‘Tis enough, Maurette,” he said fondly. “I thanks you with all my heart.” He took her hand in his and lifted it to his lips. Brushing it with a tender kiss, he said, “Dominic Warbrooke is well blessed.”

Maurette withdrew her hand. She realized that she must be careful where this young man was concerned. She must keep a watch on her emotions, for he was both bold and tender. She was only eighteen, and he not much more than that, and they were obviously susceptible to each other’s youthful charms. Nevertheless, Lucius was, in truth, an outlaw on Dominic’s property. Maurette tilted a glance at him from under shadowed lids. He was, of certainty, one of the handsomest young men that she had ever met. If she were a carefree young maiden in London, her flirting instincts would have taken over by now. She smiled inwardly. Perhaps those instincts had already taken over. Lucius was a most persuasive suitor. However, Maurette must check herself; she was no carefree young maiden, and this was Ravenshead.

“You must make me a vow, Lucius,” Maurette said as she continued along the beach. “You must vow that, if I somehow succeed in this business, you will attempt to make amends with your uncle.”

Walking along beside her, Lucius smiled. “You would be a maker of miracles if you could accomplish peace between us, Maurette.”

“That is not my purpose but your, Lucius. You must make your own peace with Dominic. I can only attempt to discern his temper on this matter. The rest will be up to you.”

“I can only tell you that I shall be open to whatever suggestions you make, Maurette.”

“That is as much as I could ask, Lucius.”

“Will you allow me to ask you a question?” he said gently.

“What is it?”

“Why do you agree to this, not knowing the problem that exists between us?”

Maurette sighed audibly. “I suppose I am convinced that no problem exists within a family that cannot be solved if love exists among its members.” She saw Lucius stiffen. “Oh, you hate him now, or so you imagine, Lucius, but Dominic is your mother’s brother. There are ties of love here that will never be unbound.”

Again, Lucius averted his eyes. “You could be right, Maurette,” he said softly.

“I am right, Lucius. Why do you and your mother insist on remaining here? Ravenshead is your home. It represents family, your family. You have a proud heritage. Such deeply rooted attachments are not so easily broken. This rift must be terrible for Dominic as well. I would see peace within the walls of his house. I would see that he has peace within his soul.”

Lucius shook his head raptly. “I pray my uncle can see his sweet fortune in your love.” He stopped and took Maurette’s arm in his hand. Turning her to face him, he asked, “Why did you seek the seclusion of this little stretch of beach?”

“In truth, I did not know it existed,” she said honestly. She smiled. “You uncle is not mistreating me, if that is your worry.”

“Why then did you leave the castle? Or,” he said, his eyes narrowing, “were you expelled-tasted, chewed, and spit out?”

Maurette laughed. “Your mother had not been unkind, exactly, but I have been made to know that the Castle Ravenshead, for all its vastness, is large enough for only one mistress. In any event, I believe that peace has been made between us. ‘Twas only that I sought solitude for a time today.”

Lucius cocked a sand-colored brow. “Solitude?”

“The solitude of choice, little nephew,” Maurette said, attempting to withdrew her arm from his grasp. Lucius smiled down at her struggles. Then, realizing that they were standing very near the edge of the water, Maurette squealed. “Lucius, you must let me go. Just when my slippers were beginning to dry.”

” ‘Tis a remedy I have learned for anyone wishing solitude,” he said solemnly and walked her further into the gently surging water.

“You are a monster, Lucius Hamilton.” Maurette giggled. She tugged against his grasp, but he held her tight.

“You really must refrain from such an uncomplimentary designation, auntie, thought just might happen to be true.”

He drew her a little farther into the waves. She lurched away from him, and catching him off balance, she pushed him into the billowing swells. Losing his footing on the polished stones beneath his feet, Lucius stumbled backward and nearly fell into the water. Maurette put her hands on her hips and saucily enjoyed his predicament. She realized too late that he was set on grim retaliation. Regaining his balance, he lunged from the water and grabbed at her. She broke free of his grasp and ran headlong down the beach, but he was to fast for her. Laughing wildly, the struggled at the water’s edge. Finally, he gave one last tremendous effort and, with his arm firmly locked about her waist, pulled her with him into the gentle surf. Loosening his grip deliberately, he allowed her own strength to pull her away from him and plunk her, thrashing and giggling, down into the shallow water.

He stood above her, his head thrown back in gloating laughter. Maurette bounded up and, arms stiffened in front of her, she ran into him. He went down with a splash, and not it was Maurette who gloated. The tables turned back upon her so quickly that she did not know what had happened. Suddenly, his big hands had encircled each of her wrists, and she found herself sitting in the cold water next to him. The shock took her breath away, but she regained it and was soon laughing helplessly.

Lucius stood up finally and shook his dripping hair on her, before lifting her from the surf and carrying her onto the beach. One muscled arm beneath her shoulders and one beneath her knees, he walked up onto the dry bank. Laying her down on the sunlit rock where they had eaten earlier in the afternoon, he gently removed her sodden cloak and laid it across a nearby bush to dry. He stood over her, gazing down at her slender form.

Her bodice was soaked, and her opaline breasts heaved beneath the wetness of her gown. The cold air caused her nipples to form hard buds beneath the cloth, and it strained with each breath. Lucius was hard pressed not to touch her shimmering skin. The shape of her slender hips and long legs was visible through her sodden petticoats. He knelt on one knee and breathed in the lovely sight. Maurette, unaware of his perusal, lay on the warm stone, basking in the late afternoon sun. Her eyes were closed and her soft lips curved into a smile.

“I hope,” she said lazily, “that I can reenter the castle without anyone seeing me.”

“Jonathan misses noting, my lady,” Lucius said huskily.

“Help me then, little nephew, to think of some excuse for my unseemly appearance.”

There was a long pause before Lucius answered her. His bantering tone, when he did, had vanished.

“I would help you in every way possible,” he said gently as he hovered over her.

Maurette raised her eyelids slowly. “You miss my meaning, I fear,” she said warily.

“I but give your words the meaning that I wish they had,” he said, brushing a wet tendril of hair from her soft cheek. He gazed down on her with tenderness and warmth. Maurette felt the desire to reach up and brush the dripping tousled hair from his forehead. His dark eyelashes were spiked with moisture, and he looked very young and boyishly vulnerable.

“Oh, Lucius,” she breathed. His head dipped, and his face was inches from her own. “Please,” she whispered very softly. She desperately desired his lips upon her at that moment, and at the same time, she hoped that he could hold himself in check. “Please, Lucius, be stronger that I,” she said, fighting tears. Her voice pleaded while her body ached for his touch.

Lucius realized that, in her vulnerable state, he could easily take advantage of this luscious young woman. But he knew, too, that this was not perhaps the time. She would hate him afterward, and he did not want that.

“I shall wait.” He whispered into the delicate shell of her ear. He mustered every ounce of control that he possessed and drew himself up and away from Maurette.

Maurette did not know whether she was happy or not that Lucius had exercised his self-control, but she breathed a relieved sign and then pulled herself into a sitting position. She watched the broad back that faced her and wondered at her own self-control. She wondered when she would again meet the handsome and desirable young Lucius and if she would be capable of resisting the charms of his youthful manhood. She tore her gaze away from him and began to rise. He turned and helped her. Carrying her sodden cloak, he followed as Maurette made her way up the path to the curtain wall. He lifted the soggy train that trailed behind her, and they both laughed at the picture they presented to any watcher.

It was with regret that Maurette faced when they had made their way through the thick stone wall. She knew that she must never again meet him alone. She could not trust herself. Lucius placed his hands on her shoulders.

“I pray,” she said, “that one day we shall meet as a family. I shall do my best to intercede with Dominic on your behalf.”

He eyes held hers in a gray-green gaze. “I would be all to you, Maurette,” he said and grazed her check with a soft kiss.

“I love Dominic,” she murmured softly. “He is everything to me.” Their eyes locked and the determined set of her chin told him that, for now, he must be content with what he had achieved this afternoon. For the moment, he must not press for more.

“I understand,” he said gently. “And though I respect for now your sweet loyalty to my uncle, I tell you this. If ever you need my support, I shall attend you. Remember that, Maurette.”

>From a tower embrasure high above, an icy green-silver gaze bore into them. Below, Maurette shivered. The pale afternoon sun had crossed the sky and was about to set. Lucius noted her trembling and placed an arm around her shoulders. At the entrance to the castle, he watched her delicate form as she left him to traverse the rest of the way by herself. His eyes narrowed as he watched her melt into the huge entryway. When she had disappeared, his gaze lifted. A silent correspondence took place between the lofty watcher and the young Lucius. Both knew that Dominic Warbrooke would react most ungentle to Maurette’s dalliance with his nephew and that, before the afternoon was over, he would most certainly be apprised of it.

ROMANTIC VENTURE

CHAPTER TWENTY-SEVEN

Maurette made her way up to her chamber. She pushed at the heavy door, and it was with a relieved sigh that she found the chamber empty. In the dimness of her room, she discarded her ruined clothing and bade a startled Kitty to warm water for a bath. The girl had entered to find her mistress naked and dripping near the fire.

Maurette sank into the warming depths of her scented bath and reveled there while going over the events of the afternoon. Her eyes closed in warm peace. Kitty had left the room after building up the fire and lighting candles against the thickening darkness of the room. Maurette had informed her that the bath would be a long one and that she was not to be disturbed.

“I shall not need you till dinner,” she said, smiling into the girl’s serious brown eyes. Maurette was, therefore, startled when she heard the soft scrape of the big door. Her eyes opened wide, and she turned to find Dominic in the doorway, his massive form blotting out the torchlight from the dim hallway behind him. She placed a delicate white hand to her breast. Her hair was swept in a mass of curls onto the top of her head. She looked very fragile and inviting in the rose-gold glow of the firelight.

Dominic pushed the door closed. Saying nothing, he moved across the room to where her tumbled garments lay in a sodden heap. He lifted all the clothing in one large hand.

Maurette followed him with her eyes. Her heart lurched in her breast as she watched him inspect the undergarments, which lay atop the heap. Her eyes widened at the inscrutable stare he leveled at her. She moistened her soft lips.

“I fell into the water,” she said in a whisper.

Dominic arched an eyebrow. A half-smile crossed his firm lips, but the smile did not reach his eyes. He held her in his silver gaze. His eyelids hooded, and he let the garments slide from his grasp to fall to the floor at his feet. His gaze never left her. The fire lit shadows played across his chiseled features. The cloak that hung from his broad shoulders swept the floor silently as he moved to stand over her. His eyes were like hot steel, and Maurette could see the flames from the hearth reflected in their depths.

With what seem to Maurette to be excessive care, he bent and placed his hands firmly upon her naked shoulders. Grasping her flesh, he lifted her to her feet. She felt very small and fragile in his strong hands. His face was taut as he looked down upon her. The skin that stretched over his cheekbones and jaw glistened darkly. His firmly etched lips had a hardness that seemed to Maurette etched in granite. Beneath dark Lashes, his gaze bore into her. Her breasts quivered at his unrelenting appraisal. Slowly, slowly he lifted his hand. His fingertips brushed the translucent mounds of her breasts, and he tantalized each coral peak with his thumb. She gasped audibly as his hand ranged down to her stomach and rested on the swell oh her hip. He lifted his gaze to her eyes. He stepped closer and pulled the pins from her upswept curls. Her hair fell in shimmering waves over her shoulders and breasts.

Eyes wide, Maurette endured Dominic’s silent ministrations. She felt that some terrible violence lurked beneath the exterior of his finely muscled form. She waited, unmoving, for the violence to erupt.

He scooped Maurette into his arms and carried her to the bed. He lowered her and then himself into its thick folds. Maurette felt his terrible weight and gazed up into his face that hovered inches above her own. She could not move beneath his menacing gaze. She was transfixed, as a small animal before being devoured by a ravening bird of prey.

Dominic’s hand came up to brush her hair away from her shoulder and neck while his other arm forced itself beneath her shoulders. Her head fell back sharply exposing the tender white flesh of her throat. His mouth came down savagely and he sucked at the soft flesh. Tears popped into her eyes as she felt his teeth on her bared skin. With unbridled hunger, his mouth traveled downward to the mounds of her breasts and then to her exposed white belly. Maurette writhed beneath his attack. A low sob emanated from her throat. Dominic looked up. His eyes glowed silver in the firelight.

“Do you deny me?” he said, his voice a growl.

“No, my lord,” Maurette gasped. ” ‘Tis only that your loving is not loving.”

“Is it not,” he snarled. In one swift powerful motion, he drew himself up and straddled her slender, white body. His cloak billowed out behind him, and in the dancing shadows of the firelit room, he seemed a glowering bird of prey. Maurette splay her hands out before her in a self-protective gesture.

“Please, Dominic,” she whimpered.

Grabbing her wrists, he jerked them above her head and held them there. Her whole body trembled as his mouth came down on first one beast and then the other to suck at the tender mounds with rapacious, all-devouring intent. Maurette wriggled helplessly in his grasp. She sobbed openly as his mouth captured every inch of flesh from her neck to her belly. Hot tears flowed down her cheeks at his brutal assault.

Finally, mercifully, he stopped. Maurette’s tear-filled eyes watched in horror at what happened next. The ravening beast that was her lover of the night before gazed down upon her. He let go her wrists and with his powerful hands spread her thighs as far as they would stretch. Lifting her buttocks, he raised the lower half of her body to his mouth.

“No!” she breathed, horrified. Nevertheless, like a slavering bird of prey, he slowly raised his quarry to his hungry jaws. Maurette felt his lips and then his teeth cover her quivering flesh. His tongue savored her as he sucked languidly. Maurette squeezed her eyes shut. She could not believe what this savage act was doing to her body. She felt her life juices flowing into Dominic’s voracious mouth. As his tongue flicked at her mercilessly, hot fingers of desire filled her woman’s body. She moaned and writhed beneath the frenzied pulsation that racked her. Then, when she believed that she could endure no more, she felt the thrust of Dominic’s ravening tongue into the core of her womanhood. She screamed in an agony of voluptuous torment. He continued to suck hungrily at the bud of her desire, his tongue thrusting savagely and then retreating to leave her in tortured ecstasy. With his teeth, lips, and tongue, he tickled, teased, and tantalized her female ripeness until she cried out over and over for him to satisfy her craving needs. A rasping laugh rose from Dominic’s throat as he tortured her ripening desires. His hot breath on her woman’s mound set flames of lust afire in her body.

“Please,” she sobbed in a final desperate choking rasp. Dominic’s tongue flicked out in one last derisive gesture and the, unbelievably, he stopped. Setting down her enflamed womanhood, he rose from the bed and shrugged his heavy cloak from his massive shoulders. Slowly, he divested himself of his other garments. Maurette watched him in writhing anticipation. “Oh, please hurry,” she rasped huskily. When finally his bronzed body loomed above her, she grasped at the sight of his engorged manhood. It was poised before him as a weapon. Maurette raised her eyes in questioning horror.

“Do you want me, Maurette?” His words were a low rumble.

“Yes,” she breathed.

“Are you mine?”

“I am, Dominic,” she said softly. “Only yours.”

He smiled lazily. “Tell me what you want, Maurette.”

“I want…you, Dominic…your body to fill me. I want you to take me.” Her breath came in shallow gasps. “Please, Dominic take me now.”

He lowered himself onto the bed and turned her to him, taking her in his muscled arms. With slow and practiced ease, he began to hiss her quivering flesh. Maurette felt her flaming senses soar to unimagined heights. When he finally took her, she could barely tolerate the rapture of her passion-filled soul. Stars and suns burst devoured her Her until she was engulfed by an ebon void. She lay panting and sobbing in Dominic’s arms until her exhausted body fell into a dreamless slumber.

ROMANTIC VENTURE

CHAPTER TWENTY-EIGHT

Maurette slept a night and most of a day. She awoke to find Kitty staring down on her. Naked and tangled in the bed covers, Maurette reached feebly for something with which to cover herself from Kitty’s regard. The girl watched apprehensively as Maurette, unable to locate her dressing gown, curled into a tight ball.

“Prepare me a bath, Kit,” she said in a pitifully small voice. Kitty brought her a gown, and Maurette tucked it around herself with almost feverish determination. When Kitty would have aided her, she pushed at her hands and shook her head wildly.

Kitty set to the business of preparing Maurette’s bath. As the water warmed over the low fire, she went about the room, picking up pillows and bolsters that had been strewn in turbulent disarray. A fur throw had been crumpled and apparently tossed from the bed. What rampant savagery had ensued here, Kitty could only imagine. The fact that her mistress had not appeared for dinner the night before and neither had the lord of the house, had aroused Kitty’s suspicions that some eventful circumstance was taking place. She had not dared to enter Maurette’s chamber until very late. When she had, she had found Maurette lying limp and moaning in a fitful sleep. She had covered her and left the room.

Checking on her from time to time throughout the night and the next day, Kitty had found her to be restive. Each time she had come into the chamber, she had found it necessary to arrange Maurette’s bed covers, for they had invariably been askew and wrapped around her body.

When the bath was prepared, Kitty went to the bed and gently placed her hand on Maurette’s huddled shoulder. She felt a stiffening and realized that whatever had taken place in this room had filled her mistress with an all-consuming pain. She would not inquire as to its source but would keep a gentle watch on the chamber. She placed a hand on Maurette’s matted hair.

“Would you like my assistance in your bath, my lady?” Kitty said softly. Again Maurette shook her head, and Kitty backed resignedly from the room.

Hot tides of shame had overwhelmed Maurette on her awakening, and now, with Kitty gone from the room, she sprang from her bed and lunged into her bath without even testing the temperature of the water. Washing herself furiously, Maurette attempted to cleanse the terror and humiliation that had gripped her through the night from her body and her soul. She felt unclean and debased, and all the water in the oceans of the world could not wash away her degradation. She found herself sitting in the cooling water, sobbing out her agony. Dominic’s violent handling of her body had been the final abasement. She had been a foolish, unnecessary ornament in this household, but now she was also dirtied.

Lifting herself from the tub, Maurette wrapped herself in a heavy dressing gown and moved to the bed. She sat heavily upon its edge and did not look up when Kitty reentered the room.

“Please, my lady,” she said, “is there nothing I can do to appease this torment you endure?”

Maurette looked up into Kitty’s pained eyes. “Thank you, Kit, but no. There is no relief for what I feel. If I could even hate the man I thought I loved, ‘twould be a blessing. But my loathing is for myself.”

Kitty threw herself at Maurette’s seated form. “But you must not, gentle lady. You are too fine and too admirable a woman to endure such torture as that of self-loathing.”

Maurette took Kitty’s face into her hands and gazed down into her soft brown eyes. They were so filled with the purity of her love that Maurette felt suffused with warmth.

“Bless you, Kit,” she said. A small smile crossed her lips. “You have reminded me that I am not entirely alone. There are those who love me in this world.” Maurette stood and gently lifted Kitty. “Get me a proper gown, Kit, and help me to bed.”

Relief surged through Kitty’s thin body. She helped Maurette into a clean nightdress and smoothed the covers on her bed. Maurette lay down and for the first time in many hours felt her body relax. Kitty stroked Maurette’s masses of her hair.

“Sleep, my lady,” she said tenderly. “Sleep, and dream sweet dreams.”

“Thank you, my Kit,” Maurette murmured softly, as her breathing evened and she felt herself descending at last into a restful slumber.

Maurette dreamed not of demons but of her home. She lay once again in the plump grasses surrounding the graceful manor house. She could see the billowing clouds in a clear blue sky. She heard the song of the martins and the restful buzz of the bees. The trickling of a brook and the rustling of leaves in a dewy bower filler her soul. A dog barked, a horse whickered. Her father was there and her mother.

They smiled at her and warmly caressed her. Her grandmother appeared and slipped the platinum band on Maurette’s finger. Her sea-blue eyes were filled with love. “Do not be afraid,” she whispered into Maurette’s ear. Her face disappeared in a mist, but the words, lingered and repeated themselves over and over.

“Grandmama,” Maurette breathed in her sleep. “Grandmama,” she said again. “Help me,” she murmured. Awareness washed over Maurette, and she bolted awake. The vision had been so real. She looked down and found the platinum band on her finger where it had been these many weeks. She held it to her breast. She gazed around the quiet interior of her tester bed. Nothing stirred. She listened to the sounds of her chamber-the crack of the low fire, the brush of her own flesh against the pillow, the soft snap of a guttering candle. Maurette lay back.

A footfall startled her. Someone was in her room. Her body went rigid. The hangings stirred. One drape was drawn open, and Maurette gasped as Dominic appeared.

“You have awakened.” His cool tone hinted no remorse.

“Yes,” Maurette answered stiffly.

“I have been waiting.”

“What is it?” Maurette’s lips parted. She moistened them with her tongue. She felt no sense of impending danger. And yet…He loomed over her, his eyes like icy chips of stone.

“I would speak with you,” he said evenly and held the drape for her to pass. Maurette drew her legs from beneath the covers and swung them over to the side of the bed. She stood and moved into the chamber. Drawing a robe from the chest, she shrugged into it and faced Dominic. His intent was not, apparently, to abuse her again. They were both fortunate in that, Maurette thought resolutely, for never again would he use her so cruelly. Her chin shot up.

“What do you want?” she inquired crisply.

Dominic’s eyebrow shot up. His eyes flashed dangerously. “You dare speak to me thus?” He growled.

“I do.” Said Maurette stiffly. A vital flame had been kindled in her. She had seen her family and her beloved Islington. She had felt the strength of their love for her and the strength of her own self-worth flow into her. She knew that ultimately she must hold her tongue. Anger, she had proven to herself time and again, was no weapon against Dominic Warbrooke. However, she knew, too, that she had not deserved his humiliating treatment of her.

“Tread carefully, Maurette, for my wrath is a dangerous toy.” Silence leaped menacingly between them. “I would that you attend me at dinner this night,” he said after a long pause.

Maurette bit back an angry response. Where she had expected passionate remorse, she was discovering only arrogant swagger. His attitude was not forgivable. Maurette’s eyes blazed with the frustration she felt at her position. She did not speak but waited for further words from him.

His face softened for a moment and then once more became a mask of anger and something else. Was it…could it have been…pain? Maurette’s brows quirked in puzzlement. For all her ire, she longed to question him on that momentary vulnerability she had glimpsed. However, he turned away from her and moved to her armoire. He swept both doors open and inspected the contents.

“You shall wear this,” he said, pulling out her richest gown. It was a velvet of deep sable color. “And with it you will wear these.” He thrust the gown and a small box at her. She took them both. Laying the gown over the back of a settee, she opened the box. She gazed down at a delicate chain made of platinum and amethysts. The metal was so pure that it was almost white, and the gems were of the palest lavender. At the very center of her throat, a larger stone would lie in a heart-shaped setting. She glanced up at Dominic.

“I had intended to token you with that at another time,” he said stonily. “But I want you wealthily garbed this night.” His mouth became a grim line.

Maurette could only wonder at the concern he apparently had over the way she dressed on this particular night, but she had no time to question him. For he turned at that moment and left the chamber. Maurette fingered the magnificent necklace reflectively for a few moments. Then with a resolution that lifted her chin, she began her toilette for this very significant evening.

Maurette entered the darkened gallery leading to the withdrawing room. She had dressed carefully in the gown of sable-colored velvet. Long tight sleeves encased her slender arms like the skin of a snake and ended in a closely fitting vee at her wrists. Her eyes were enhanced by the amethysts she wore at her throat. Kitty had swept her hair up, and it curled in glistening waves atop her head.

Dominic was alone when she entered the room. He waited for her before the hearth beneath the loathsome creature that was his coat-of-arms. Maurette wavered at the entrance and took in Dominic’s massive form. The flames, which seemed to emanate from his very body, cracked and seethed in hideous rapacity behind him. She could not draw her eyes from his raven countenance. Suddenly, his narrow silver gaze took in something behind her and just over her should. Feeling a warm presence, she turned to find Lucius Hamilton standing behind her. She gasped and backed away from him into the room. Maurette stood between the two men and looked from one to the other. She had never known such fear. Her mind whirled with speculation. What was Dominic’s purpose in bringing her and Lucius together? The two men were of a height, and icy sparks shot between them as they glared at one another.

“You sent for me, Uncle,” Lucius said with indolent boldness.

“I went to a great deal of trouble to get my message to you, Nephew,” Dominic said, matching his tone. “Once I knew you to be within the walls of Ravenshead, finding you was not a simple matter.”

Lucius chuckled low in his throat. ” ‘Tis a big castle.”

” ‘Tis my castle.” Dominic’s voice betrayed no anger, and for some reason, this frightened Maurette beyond reason. He settled a chilling gaze upon her. Advancing to her, he placed a muscled arm around her shoulders. She stiffened, causing him to tighten his hold imperceptibly. Lucius scowled.

” ‘Twould seem,” said Lucius, arching a brow, “that your lady would prefer a gentler hand.”

“My lady,” said Dominic silkily, placing special emphasis on the first word. “Is precisely that, young Lucius. ‘Tis my intent that fact is made eminently clear to you.”

Lucius regarded him levelly. Then he turned and moved to the side table where he poured himself a brandy. He turned back to the couple and raised his goblet.

“To the happy couple,” he said. His voice held no small hint of mockery. Then, as his eyes fell on Maurette, he smiled gently. “On second thought,” he said looking down into his brandy. “Methinks the company is beyond the need for spirit.” Lucius set down his cup. “You need prove nothing to me, Uncle. Your lady has, in truth, already made her feeling for you clear to me.” He regarded Maurette with a tenderness that was not lost on his uncle.

“I see,” said Dominic. Without warning, he turned to Maurette and raised his hand to brush a fingertip over the swell of her breast above the plunging neckline of her gown. Her flesh quivered as she felt both pairs of male eyes upon her bosom.

“Please, Dominic,” she said in a small voice.

“Please what?” Dominic questioned, his voice deceptively soft. When Maurette did not answer, he turned back to face Lucius. “Our nephew indicated that you intoxicate him.” His finger continued to trace an idle path on Maurette’s breasts. “The boy will drink himself into oblivion, if he continues to stare.” Dominic laughed low in his throat, and his eyes held his nephew’s in an icy stare. ” ‘Tis an odd thing about spirit,” Dominic said reflectively, “one is admonished to enjoy it in moderation and yet,” he looked down upon Maurette’s white breasts. “To truly know the fullest pleasures of the grape, one must experience it to an immodest degree.” He applied minimal pressure to the tautened velvet neckline, and Maurette, to her horror, felt the material give to the extent that her pinkened aureoles were exposed. She felt her nipples harden against the straining ridge of the neckline’s edge.

She knew instinctively that to attempt to thwart Dominic, at that moment, would result in some horrible violence, for violence lurked just beneath the surface in the tension-filled room. Both men watched, fascinated, as the color rose to pinken Maurette’s pale flesh. Her heart pounded in her chest, and her breasts quaked with each pulsation.

“Are you cold?” Inquired Dominic, noting her trembling flesh.

“No,” she said, and the word became a soft gasp as Dominic touched the top of each straining nipple.

“Mmmm,” he murmured, and the sound was a hot caress. “I was concerned,” he said solicitously. “Why do you tremble?”

Maurette gazed up into his eyes that had darkened to an iron gray. Her breath came in shallow gasps. Her humiliation was complete as she realized that her breasts now strained against the corded velvet edge of her gown. Tears came to her eyes. She stood her ground courageously, however, and would not give in to anger or the fear that clutched her heart. She would not be the cause of violence between uncle and nephew, and yet she knew that she already was. Tears ran unabated down her pale cheeks. She lifted her chin.

“I told Lucius that I loved you, Dominic, and he accepted my words. He has done nothing to threaten you,” she said in a clear voice. “At least where is concerns me.”

“Ah,” said Dominic softly, “you even defend the young mutineer.”

“I do not defend him’ I but tell the truth.” She pulled back her shoulders, caring not that the movement thrust her breasts out even farther. “Do what you will with me, my lord, but the results shall be on your conscience.”

“My conscience,” roared Dominic suddenly. “How dare you speak of ‘my conscience’?” His eyes were like chips of black diamonds and his face a mask of bronzed anger. Maurette shrank from the rage that gripped him. She could not believe that such towering wrath existed in the man she had believed she loved. Lucius sprang to Dominic’s side.

“You do this lady an injustice, sir,” he shouted.

Dominic turned upon him and with the full power of his fury; he advanced on his nephew.

“And you, Lucius Hamilton, do me and your family an injustice. You are here now by my good grace. For ten years and more, ’twas my hand that clothed and fed you. Yet you betrayed me, and still my hand way yours. And yet again you betrayed me.” Dominic backs Lucius across the room. His advance was relentless. Maurette had never seen such cold hatred. That it resided in Dominic was a fact more frightening to her than anything that she could imagine.

Dominic now stopped his advance and stood breathing hard before his nephew. His voice, when he spoke was calmer and because of that all the more menacing.

“And now you dare to attempt to breach my fortress, to pilfer what is mine. I tell you this, Lucius Hamilton. By the blood of G-d, I swear that I shall kill you before this night is out. Your only hope is to leave Ravenshead now and never enter these battlements again. Thank your G-d that I give you this accommodation, for He knows, as do I, that you do not deserve it.”

Lucius stood before his uncle. His muscular young body was redid with anger. His green eyes flashed sparks, and his strong white teeth were bared.

Maurette gasped raggedly, but neither of the two murderously angry men noticed her. She realized that, at that moment, she might not have been in the room, so complete was the concentration of the two bronzed adversaries upon each other. The room was superheated with their hatred for one another. Maurette realized that she might well witness a murder this night. She felt the room begins to whirl around her, and she quickly sat in a nearby chair. Her heart pounded in her breast, and she stifled a terrified scream as the tension mounted to the point where she felt an explosion was imminent.

Then, without warning, Lucius backed away. Maurette saw his muscular frame untense. She realized that the breath she took was her first in many seconds. She waited. The fire hissed. The ugly black creature above the mantel gazed with lustful hunger upon the two would-be combatants. It seemed to slaver for blood.

“I shall go,” Lucius said finally. There were no more words. He turned and left the room.

Maurette pushed her knuckles to her lips to keep from crying out her relief. She dared not move for fear that Dominic’s wrath be directed, in the absence of his hated quarry, upon her. She watched him warily.

His body untensed slowly, and his cold fury slowly left him. His breathing evened as he turned and held Maurette in his gaze. For a long eerie moment he seemed to waver on the brink of a decision, and then, the decision made, he advanced to her, Maurette stiffened.

“Do you not be frightened, little,” he said, and there was a tenderness in his voice that astonished Maurette, coming so soon upon the heels of such unbridled anger. “I have no right to ask your forgiveness, and so I will not. I will ask for nor expect no quarter from you. You have every right to hate me. I hate myself more than you do, you see. I hate myself for forcing you to assume the brunt of my hatred of Lucius Hamilton. Someday…perhaps…our hearts will meet again, but until such time, I shall keep myself from your sweet company. In the meantime, Maurette, I would have it that you know all.” He lifted her with one strong hand from the chair. “Will you come with me, Maurette?” he said gently. “I would show you our great secret.”

Maurette guessed that they were in the north tower. They had passed through dim musty passages and climbed craggy stairways that led them into tower rooms and upper galleries. Everywhere the smells of age and neglect assailed Maurette. Though she no longer felt the desire to share Dominic’s life or to help him bear the burden of the castle’s ‘great secret,’ she realized that to close the door upon Dominic now might be to close it forever. Because she had loved him and perhaps loved him still, she allowed him to lead her to these isolated heights. They stopped before a massive wooden doorway. Huge planks, their luster dimmed through centuries, were lighted on either side by low burning torch lamps. Dominic took a great key from a hole that was made when he removed a stone from the wall near the door. He unlocked the arched barrier. Inside, a wooden door blocked Maurette’s view of the chamber. Pushing it aside Dominic led her inside.

Displacing one of the torches at the entry, Dominic held it aloft so that Maurette could see the features of the chamber. She squinted in the dim light. The ceiling was unusually low with arched timbers buttressing the stone walls. The floor was spread with rushed, and small low benches were set in rows. At one end of the chamber there was a dais and on it what looked to be, from Maurette’s dim perspective, a table. She moved slowly down the center of the room through an aisle that was formed by the placement of the benches. With his torch, Dominic lit two low candles on the linen-draped table, and Maurette recognized it for what it was.

“An altar,” she breathed. ” ‘Tis a Catholic altar, Dominic.” The hold vestments were laid on the table, and small statues filled every corner of the raised platform. A Latin Bible lay open at the center of the table on a small lectern. Dominic lit another candle, and Maurette lifted her eyes to a tall marble statue of the Virgin Mary. “I do not understand, Dominic,” Maurette said in bewilderment. “Are you a Catholic?”

“He is not,” said a voice from behind them. Lydia moved to the front of the chapel. “I am the breaker of laws here,” she said. She stood in front of Maurette. “Dominic has protected me these many years, you see. And though our sacred church is outlawed and my brother is fiercely patriotic, he would never allow me to be indicted for my beliefs.”

“Is this the truth, Dominic?” Maurette asked, casting a wary glance in his direction.

” ‘Tis true, Maurette,” he said softly into the dimness of the shadowed chamber. ” ‘Tis the reason that we do not welcome the company of people in this house.”

“No one must discover that the great and powerful courtier of the queen, Lord Dominic Warbrooke, harbors a Catholic criminal,” Lydia said harshly.

“Calm yourself, Lydia,” Dominic said sharply and turned to Maurette. “With things as they are between Spain and our beloved England, we cannot chance Lydia’s exposure. We pray that one day she will be able to practice her chosen belief in peace.”

Lydia turned and moved up the aisle to the chamber door. “I shall leave you now, Maurette. I know that you will want to question Dominic further on this and that you have feelings of confusion to sort in your mind.”

Lydia left the room, and Dominic set the torch in a blackened brass holder. He led Maurette to a low bench.

“Ask your questions, little one,” he said gently.

Maurette hesitated. “Does this have anything to do with Lucius?” she said, fearing a violent reaction to her question.

“In many ways it does,” Dominic said. “Lucius was raised a Catholic. My sister was married to a Scottish gentleman, and they lived in his homeland for many years. When he died, I invited Lydia to make her home with me. Lucius was but ten years old at the time and Lydia needed the comfort of her chosen religion. I saw no harm, in their continuing to practice Catholicism. However, ’twas 1570 when the excommunication of the queen took place, ’twas not until ’85 that any real pressure was brought to bear to repress the Catholic population. In addition, as you know, Maurette, our good Elizabeth’s policy of toleration toward the Catholics is well documented. Now, however, very real dangers exist, and Lydia must be more circumspect in her behavior.

“I am not a religious person, Maurette. My communion with the Almighty is a private one, and I respect the law, but I cannot see that my sister’s practicing of her chosen religion threatens our beloved England.”

“And Lucius?”

Dominic’s face darkened. “That is another matter.” He stood and paced the darkened room. “You have no doubt head of Anthony Babington. His murderous plot is now legend. The queen herself had protected Mary Stuart for two decades, but when Babington’s assassination plan was uncovered and Mary’s sanction of it described, even Elizabeth’s good heart was hardened toward her. There were many such plots, Maurette, but none so hateful as that one. It included not only Her Majesty’s murder, but the imposition of Mary Stuart on our people by the force of Spanish arms.” Dominic went on grimly. ” ‘Twas Mary’s own hand that ultimately caused her execution, for she had an active part in Babington’s plot. Any my nephew was very much a part of it.

“I had seen to a position for Lucius at court. In December of 1585, Mary was to be moved from Tutbury to the earl of Eddex’s castle at Chartley. ‘Twas a humane action on the part of Elizabeth, for Mary had complained of her health and of the drafty environs of Tutbury. Her Majesty chose, from among her younger courtiers, an elite echelon to escort Mary and her retinue overland to Chartley. Lucius was among her younger courtiers; he was in fact, made Master of the Horse for this legation. ‘Twas a great honor for him, Maurette. He held the same position that Elizabeth’s favorite, the earl of Leicester, held at court. But, alas, the lad abominated his great fortune.

“When the unit returned from Chartley, the rumors began to fly that Lucius had provided succor to messengers of the Mary supporters in the French court, including Mendoza, the faithless ambassador. Her Majesty bade me speak to Lucius, for she could not believe that such condemning tales could be true of a nephew of mine.

When I went to Lucius, naturally, he denied the imputations. I did not fully trust him, but, for my sister’s sake, I accepted his word. That he was loyal to our Sovereign and no friend to Mary of Scotland. ‘Twas his first betrayal,” Dominic said stonily.

“As you know, Her Majesty trusted me implicitly. When I assured her that Lucius was the brunt of jealous gossip, she believed me. ‘Twas my hand that allowed his final. Mary’s original letter to Babington, outlining the evil plot that would place her on the throne of England, was never found. Walsingham had intercepted it, had it copied, and sent it on to Babington who destroyed it. Fortunately, a copy of the letter existed, and it was this copy that finally sounded Mary’s death knell.

“One night early in July, I had stayed late at cards and was padding Walsingham’s privy chamber. I heard a noise inside and though to admonish Sir Francis for keeping such late hours. I went into the room only to find my nephew skulking at the minister’s table. He was astonished to have been discovered. I knew then,” said Dominic with rising anger, “that I had been duped and that I had gulled the queen into believing our treacherous young courtier. He admitted to me, with defiant arrogance, that he had been searching Walsingham’s private office to see if a copy of Mary’s letter existed. I could have killed him then, for there was no guilt, no contrition in his tone. I dragged him out into the gallery, and there I beat him to within an inch of his perfidious life.”

“I sent him from the court and from my life that night. But for my sister, I would have set the entire palace on him. As it as, and is, Maurette, I set him free, for I knew the terrible punishments that would attend the guilty in that business. These last two years, I have lived with profound self-condemnation. I did not fully trust his loyalty to the throne, and yet I allowed myself the indulgence of believing in him. Worse than that, I carried the knowledge of his iniquity in my heart even as I pleaded his cause to the queen. And then, when I discovered that all that I had feared was true, I sent him our unpunished into the world. ‘Tis my profound shame, Maurette, that he ranges the land, prowling like a dog in the night with evil in his heart.” Dominic sat heavily on the low bench. He lowered his head into his hands.

“I cannot forgive myself my weakness where he is concerned. Lydia pleads daily with me to allow her son back into our lives. She assures me that his loyalties to Mary have abated. I cannot make her understand that, for his crimes, he should be lying in unconsecrated ground with his heart ripped from his chest like Babington. Even less can I convince her that her son is a consummate traitor. Dominic raised his eyes and regarded Maurette levelly.

“Now you know, little one, why I carry such hatred in my heart for my nephew. Because of him and my infirmity of purpose where he is concerned, I am more the traitor than Babington.”

“You are not traitor, Dominic,” Maurette said firmly. “Your loyalty to your family is admirable.” She placed her fingertips on his cheek. “I do not know whether Lucius had forgone his loyalty to the Mary cause, and you do not know it either. But for what you have suffered at his hand, ’tis only natural that you should despise him. I understand, and I am in sympathy with what you feel. My loyalty is to you, Dominic,” she said warmly. “And though you ask not my forgiveness for what was, in truth, monstrous behavior on your part, I do forgive you.”

Dominic placed his hand over hers. He gazed into the translucent pools of lavender and found a well of love from which he knew he could always draw strength. This fragile flower, whom he had victimized so unforgivably, was filled with the sweet nectar of forgiveness.

This lovely Maurette had forever made him a man so blessed.

“With all my heart, I thank you, Maurette,” he said gently. He stood and drew her carefully from the low bench. Together they left the chapel.

At her chamber door, they paused. “”I shall leave you now,” Dominic said softly.

Maurette smiled. ” ‘Tis every your habit when you perceive that I am in doubt.”

“And though you have forgiven me, you are in doubt, are you not?” Dominic gazed deep into her eyes. Maurette looked away. “One day, when I feel it is right, I shall ask your forgiveness again, my love,” he avowed. “Till then, I shall not intrude upon your company.” He brushed her cheek with a soft kiss.

Maurette kept her eyes averted, and as he moved away from her down the dim passage, she felt an aching loneliness. She did not call him back; however, for she knew that what had happened between them need the distance of time before she could truly forgive all. And, she asserted, lifting her small chin, perhaps Dominic needed the distance of time to realize what she meant to him.

ROMANTIC VENTURE

CHAPTER TWENTY-NINE

Beneath the soft white winter sun, the Warbrooke coach rolled along the snowy landscape that crunched soothingly beneath its wheels. Inside the coach, Maurette and Kitty snuggled beneath fur robes and sang Christmas tunes. Geoffrey and Ben, who had been invited along, joined them in their jubilant high spirits. The exultant joy inside the coach was in contrast to the serenity of the snow-laden countryside over which they traveled. Deer, munching leisurely at exposed grasses, pricked their ears as the glee-filled carriage passed by and coveys of game birds scattered in accelerated flight from their cozy thickets at the noisy merriment that moved through their quiet winter life.

Maurette and Dominic had found a certain peace between them. The terrible night that he had treated her so cruelly was never spoken of. Lucius had not appeared again, and Lydia had kept to her rooms and, Maurette assumed, to her chapel. Through the month of November the servants, with Maurette’s guidance, had begun the arduous task of cleaning at least the lower floor of the castle. As they had perceived it was to be a task that would be both tedious and time-consuming. Dominic had surprised Maurette with word of this thrilling holiday on the first of December, and they had been traveling nearly a month when the fanciful little palace appeared before them.

The gilded clock tower chimed the hour of four. “Oh,” Kitty rhapsodized, “we are just in time for tea.” Everyone laughed, and Geoffrey assured Kitty that in a royal palace every hour of the day was tea-time if one wished it to be.

They all stepped thankfully from the coach and entered the palace’s great hall. Servants bustled among the milling guest and courtiers. Kitty hugged herself at the splendor she saw before her, and her eyes was a shimmer as she passed through the sumptuously decorated room. Even Maurette, who had seen much grandeur in her life, found herself tingling with excitement in the hurly-burly of the festive atmosphere.

The great hall was festooned with Christmas greenery, and garlands hung from curving rafters. Four huge Christmas trees, one set against each wall, sparkled with crystal ornaments. Columns and buttresses were swathed with red and green velvet ribbons. Though the great room was warmed by two blazing fireplaces at opposite ends of the hall and by the heat of hundreds of bodies, Maurette noted with a smile that Ben drew his shawl up over his ears as he was led to his chamber. Maurette pulled her fox fur cloak tighter around her shoulders and moved through the bustle of people toward the hearth.

“Oh, Maurette,” she heard a feminine voice squeal, “you are here.” Maurette felt a pair of arms entwine around her neck and had just enough time to realize that it was Imogene before she returned the embrace. She held her little sister back from her and looked in wonder at her plump and healthy figure. They embraced once more before Dominic took their arms and led them behind an overburdened servant to his and Maurette’s chambers. Dominic excused himself to allow the two young women some private time together.

Imogene helped Maurette out of her cloak, admiring the luxurious silver fur. ” ‘Tis absolutely the most glorious cloak that I have ever seen,” she breathed as she rubbed her palm over the garment.

Maurette regarded her sister fondly. The girl’s skin was shinning with health and apparent happiness. Her lovely curls shimmered, and her blue, blue eyes sparkled.

“He is very rich, is he not, Maurette?” she said looking up. Bemused by her sister’s perusal, Imogene cocked a questioning brow. “What is it, Maurette?” she said in puzzlement.

Maurette smiled deeply. ” ‘Tis nothing, Imogene, except that you are so beautiful.”

Imogene ran to her and embraced her fiercely, “And you, Maurette. Oh, how I have missed you,” she cried. Her curls bounced vivaciously as she crossed to the standing mirror at one end of the room. “Have you noticed anything?”

“Only that you have never looked so healthy,” said Maurette. She watched her sister pose before the mirror, and awareness dawned as Imogene turned sideways and scrutinized her form. “A babe?” she breathed. “Oh, Imogene, a babe, already?”

” ‘Tis true, Maurette,” she giggled as she ran back to her older sister. “If my calculations are correct, he should be born in August.

“He?” asked Maurette arching an eyebrow.

“He,” Imogene nodded. “If Gregory and Mama have anything to say about it, ’twill be a boy. Gregory wants a boy, and Mama said that girls are to hard to raise,” Both girls dissolved into gales of laughter. “At any rate,” said Imogene when their hilarity had been contained; “I shall love it no matter what it turns out to be. But do you know what, Maurette?” she said confidentially. “I have been praying for a little girl.” Maurette nodded her understanding.

” ‘Tis your right, Imogene,” she said. “There are so few rights that we have,” she went on pensively, “we can at least have our prayers.”

Imogene eyes her sister curiously. “Your affianced is every bit as handsome as I remember him to be,” she said finally.

Maurette turned a discerning glance upon Imogene. She could fool no one with her guileless eyes and her open face that manifested every nuance of her thoughts. “He is, Imogene,” Maurette said evenly. Then she added, “Am I that transparent?”

Imogene looked up from the gown that she had been folding. “Whatever do you mean?” she asked, wide-eyes.

“Is that sadness that I fell-the disappointment with my life-so obvious?”

Imogene nodded slowly. “I knew it the moment you entered the hall. I put it to the long journey from Ravenshead, but in truth I knew better.”

Both women were silent for a long moment. Then, though guided by some unseen force, they moved to embrace each other. Tear came to Maurette’s eyes. Her mind was a jumble of unfocused sadness. Imogene stoked her and murmured soothing sounds.

Kitty came into the chamber carrying a large tray of cakes with a pot of tea. After setting down the tray, she moved to her mistress. Maurette introduced Imogene to her new tiring woman.

“Kitty is my only solace at Ravenshead,” she said through a shimmer of tears.

Kitty smiled. “You sister had been most generous with her time. She has taught m e to read and to speak as a high-born lady and to dress the way a lady ought to dress.” She stood and twirled for the benefit of the other two girls. “If not for my lady,” she added with a twinkle of merriment. “I should not be now residing in a fourth-floor chamber of the queen’s palace and,” she paused, “I should not be waiting the attentions of a most practiced suitor, for your sister has taught me also how to flirt.” The three women laughed. Kitty continued in mock seriousness. “Of all her teachings, this last seems to have been most useful.” Kitty moved to pour the tea. “I shall leave you now,” she said gently, bringing cups for Maurette and Imogene. “This is what you truly need. I am a poor substitute for a loving sister, I fear.” Maurette protested, but Kitty was adamant. “I shall be up to dress you for dinner, my lady,” she said and left the women alone.

“I like her,” said Imogene as they sipped at their tea.

“She is truly my only friend at Ravenshead,” Maurette nodded.

“But what of Lord Warbrooke?” Imogene said breathlessly. “Is he not your friend?”

“I know not, dear Imogene. I know that he loves me but…” her voice trailed off.

Imogene nodded understandingly. ” ‘Tis not enough is it?” She stood and set down her cup on a nearby table. “For me,” she said, “’tis different. I never loved Greg, and I sincerely doubt that it was love-the kind of love that you share with Dominic-that led him to take me to wife. Oh he is ‘in love’ with me, he imagines, but there could never be the substantive spiritual unification of our souls that makes for true sharing. For you that is a possibility, and so you are dissatisfied with anything less. For me, what I have in Greg is enough. I have no illusions, you see, no false hopes. Eventually,” Imogene went on philosophically “something will grow. between us. As we grow older, Greg and I will come to some spiritual communication. For now,” she gave a slight shrug, ’tis the babe. I am treated very well. I know ’tis only a surface emotion that guides my marriage but, for now, ’tis enough.” She turned back to her sister. “But for you, dear Maurette,” she said consolingly, “there must be so much more.” She sat down beside Maurette and touched the hand that lay quietly in her lap.

Maurette looked up into Imogene’s soft eyes. “Has Greg never said he loves you?”

Imogene’s laughter tinkled out. “Of course he has, Silly.” she said. “Gregory is a most facile phrasemaker. He is perfectly eloquent within the confines of our tester. But as you remember, Maurette,” she went on seriously. “we were not matched with great romantic expectations. Rather, we were like two fine young yearlings.” She paused. “The thrust of my telling you this is simply to remind you that I had no expectations of a glorious romantic liaison with Greg. We are plain people, Maurette, who expect nothing out of life beyond a modicum of comfort. Do you remember our childhood fancies? We spoke of quiet afternoons in quiet gardens, our children all around us and our men off on some business or other? We spoke of sipping tea and attending each other with gossip and stories of household happenings?”

Imogene’s voice had become muted and soothing. Maurette remembered all that they had envisioned and now deemed it not so terrible. In truth, Imogene’s rendering of the silly childhood imaginings made them seem almost Utopian by the standards of Maurette’s own life. They seemed, as her sister spoke, a state to be strived for.

“This is, in truth, my life,” Imogene continued. ” I really do live that way. Here at court, I meet with the ladies every afternoon for tea and stitching. There are children everywhere, and soon my own babe will be among them. The ladies talk of woman things such as how to handle their husbands,” she put her fingers to her lips and grinned broadly. “Please do not tell Gregg that he is being ‘handled,'” she giggled. “I do not believe that he would appreciate such blatant manipulation on the part of his wife. In truth, I think he knows it though. I am sure husbands know such things.”

She became serious after a while and gazed into her sister’s limpid lavender eyes.

“But for you and Dominic, such a mundane existence would be a waste. All that will ever really come for Greg and me is complacency. Once you and Dominic Warbrooke have explored the heights and depths of each other’s souls, you will have so much more. You shall have true love, Maurette.” Imogene’s face was alight with excitement and the thrill of romance, imagined but not truly sought.

“Sometimes, dear Imogene,” Maurette murmured, smiling softly, “I would have some of that complacency you speak of.”

“I do not care how you pooh-pooh my romantic dreams for you, Maurette,” Imogene said with uncharacteristic boldness, “You deserve better that the ordinary stuff of life. “You,” she said, leaning into Maurette, “deserve the full measure of a man’s passion.”

“Passion is it;” said Maurette, piquantly, “‘Twould seem that my little sister has learned a great deal of life in the short time of her marriage.”

“That she has, Maurette,” Imogene said, tossing her curls. “I have told you that Greg is a facile phrasemaker. I have learned all there is to know of love But in my case, ’tis only phrases-words-to which I have had access. But they have taught me something,” she said. Her smile was sad. “I have learned what love can be. If my Greg meant half the things he speaks to me, I should be the most beloved woman that ever lived.” She took both Maurette’s hands in hers. “As you must be, dear sister. Please be it for me. Do not accept of life less than you deserve.”

Maurette gazed down on her little Imogene. How sad, she thought, that one is bound by one’s own realities. The pictures we create of another’s life seem so much more alluring than they, in truth, are. Imogene would have another view altogether, if she could trade places with Maurette for but one day. For now Maurette saw Imogene’s quiet life, exempt from any real pain or any real pleasure, as deeply desirable. Maurette smiled and sighed.

The sound covered the scrape of the heavy door to her chamber. She knew when she saw Imogene’s eyes widen that someone had entered. Turning, she realized the reason for her little sister’s awe. Dominic stood at the entrance. His massive frame blocked the doorway, and his raven presence filled the room. Everything about him spoke of strength and nobility. His heavy cloak hung to the floor from broad shoulders, and his bronzed hand rested on the golden hilt of his sword. Maurette could understand her sister’s rapture. Dominic’s silver gaze rested upon the two women and he allowed a small smile to form upon his firmly etched lips.

“I am sorry to interrupt,” he said in a low seductive voice.

Imogene drew herself quickly up. She bobbed a deep curtsy. “Oh, sir,” she said nervously, “you must not be sorry. On the contrary, ’tis I who am in need of your forgiveness. I have stayed far too long.”

“Please do not depart on my account, Imogene,” he said laughingly, smiling broadly at her apprehension.

“Oh, but I must, Lord Warbrooke. We shall speak again, dear Maurette,” she said, brushing her sister’s cheek with a brisk kiss. Like a sprite, she fluttered from the room. Maurette allowed a small smile to cross her lips. The couple watched the intimidated Imogene scurry from the chamber.

“I am sorry, Maurette,” Dominic said softly. “I did not mean to overawe your little sister.”

“You do not mean to frighten,” said Maurette gently, “but you do, my lord.” She had not truly been alone with Dominic in several weeks. He had kept his promise of staying from her company until they had worked out all that had happened between them, and now Maurette felt uncomfortable in his presence. She turned to one of her chests and opened it to begin her unpacking.

“Are your apartments satisfactory?” he said advancing into the room.

“Quite, my lord.”

“Where is Kit?” he asked.

“She excused herself, my lord. I can manage.”

Dominic eyed her keenly. “‘Twould seem ’tis your intent to ‘my lord’ me to death, little one,” he said tranquilly.

Maurette plucked another gown from the chest and moved to the wardrobe with it. “Forgive me, my-Dominic,” she said. She knew that she was probing the recesses of Dominic’s patience, that she had been doing so for many weeks.

In the silence that ensued, she recalled the time they had spent in the chapel and Dominic’s explanation of his hatred for Lucius Hamilton. She remembered how profoundly she had been touched by his vulnerability where that young man was concerned. Dominic had left her chamber door that night and though she had forgiven him for his cruel use of her, he had sensed a reticence in Maurette. He had vowed once again that he would not impose himself upon her until such time as she was ready to accept him. He had left her then, and an uneasy peace had materialized between them. They had been friendly but guarded with each other. When he had surprised her with this holiday, she had been genuinely touched by his thoughtfulness. He had gifted her with the fur cloak, for their journey, but not once had he attempted to take advantage of her warm feelings toward him. He had remained humbly grateful for her expressions of affection.

She regarded him now, standing so proudly and so regally in this regal chamber. How difficult the past weeks must have been for him, for he was not a humble man. She felt a warmth flood through her at his touching restraint.

Two liveried footmen appeared at her door with platters of food and wine. They conveyed them into the room and, at Dominic’s curt nod, they placed them on a low table before the fire. Maurette took the time to contemplate her chamber. The windows, draperies swagged, allowed the soft purple blush of the setting sun to warm the room. Gilt carvings arched the windows and the doorways. Carpets covered the stone flooring and pearl-set velvets draped the furniture and tables. A small virginal made of glass stood in one corner of the room, and in another corner there was an ebony and silver backgammon board equipped with dice of solid silver.

“You have been given the west corner,” Dominic said after ushering the two footmen from the chamber. “Methinks Her Majesty approves our liaison.”

“I cannot Imagine your meaning, Dominic,” said Maurette. She noted that Kitty was standing shyly at the doorway. “Kit,” she said happily, relieved. “Come in and help me unpack.”

“Leave us,” said Dominic. There was no questioning the authority in his voice. With a worried glance toward her mistress and a peremptory curtsy to Dominic, Kitty left the room.

“‘Twas cruel of you, Dominic, to dismiss Kit that way,” Maurette blurted. She instantly placed her fingertips to her mouth. “Forgive me, Dominic,”. she said in a small voice. “I did not mean to speak to you thus.”

He advanced toward her and gazed down into her startled eyes. “I find your sweet reluctance to understand my lustful jest of a moment ago much to my liking,” he said huskily. “And this deference with which you treat our servants is another of your many sweet attributes that charm and delight me.” He chuckled low in his throat. “I shall apologize to our Kit,” he said.

Maurette matched his determined advance with her own slow retreat. Her heavily lashed eyes were wide, and her lips parted. “Is your vow revoked?” she whispered.

His brow arched and a flash of anger bared his strong teeth. Then, just as suddenly, it was gone. He stood before her, contemplating the fear that crossed her pale face at his sudden anger. As she had pointed out, he did not mean to frighten, but he did.

“Have I lost your love?” he said, cupping her small chin in his hand.

Maurette was hard pressed to answer. She had not stopped loving him. She knew that she would always love him, but he had ceased to be her friend. She had ceased to trust him. He had taken her away from her family and had become himself her family, and then, it seemed, he had abandoned her. Maurette had loved the Silver Raven in her childhood fantasies, the duke of Ravenshead of her birthday ball, and Dominic Warbrooke of Islington and sailing Raven but somehow, some inexplicable ‘how,’ that man had disappeared. That man had been replaced by a cold unjustifiable heartless stranger. Maurette had not stop loving Dominic Warbrooke. But she had ceased to care for him in that way her woman’s heart longed to care for the man she loved.

Maurette lowered her eyes. She shook her head slowly. He had asked her a question. His soul was in his eyes. He deserved an answer.

“No, Dominic,” she said ever softly, “you have not lost my love.

She had answered him, but they both knew it was not a complete answer. They both knew there was so much more to say. Maurette squared her shoulders and lifted her eyes to face him fully.

“How could we stop loving? Even in the most shallow moments of our life together, we have shared deeper feelings than most of our fellow human beings ever know. For those feelings-good and bad-I thank G-d. I have known heaven and hell with you, Dominic. Imogene made an observation concerning you and me. She spoke of her and Greg’s eventual complacency toward their marriage. We have never known complacency, nor will we, and for that I am grateful. But this deep well of emotion that has been granted us is treacherously double-edged. In time, Dominic, if we do not nurture these deep feelings, if we do not give as we get, we are in great danger. Love is to hate as laughter is to tears. So close are they and so fragile. The great and glorious treasure of our love must be protected by both of us.” Maurette raised her hand to brush her fingertips over his cheek. “You have not lost my love, but for a time I have feared the loss of yours.”

“Nay, Maurette,” he said so softly that the words could have been a breath. His eyes had turned to liquid silver.

“I have feared that your treatment of me announced some profound change in your feelings toward me,” she went on.. “I have feared that I would come to resent you and that you would come to despise my resentment I have feared that we would lose each other.”

Dominic smiled down on her. “‘Tis ever a woman so blessed with the powers of understanding.” Then his smile vanished, and his proud shoulders slumped. “I wish to acknowledge penitence,” he said softly. Maurette withheld the urge to move toward him. That was what was needed. She did not know exactly how to respond to his demeanor or his words. She knew that righteous indignation would be out of order; she had every right to feel affronted. She did not wish him to be humbled, and yet humility was what he must feel. They both needed to know that he truly sought the forgiveness that he had received from her but not requested. Men did not ask forgiveness of their wives as they did not ask forgiveness of their horse or hound. But Maurette knew in her heart that, if ever their souls were truly to be united, Dominic must uncover his own humility.

He lowered his eyes and then as quickly raised them. He was prepared for whatever she would offer him. “I offer an apology,” he said.

“May I ask for what action you seek absolution?” Maurette regarded him solemnly.

“Why for all,” he said in real consternation.

Maurette raised her lovely brows. “All?”

“Yes,” Dominic said, and his low voice rumbled in his throat, “for all that I have done, I apologize.”

Maurette turned to face the low fire and moved toward the glowing hearth. The light from the window had paled to a cool gray, and it illuminated her bare shoulders and the shimmering curls at her nape. Dominic suppressed an aching urge to go to her and press her to him. She turned to face him. The fire seethed behind her, enveloping her in a halo of golden light. Dominic could barely see her face, but the cool gray twilight shimmered in her great violet eyes.

“You seek forgiveness, my lord, and for exactly what deeds?” she said.

Dominic had not expected this to be easy, but his gentle Maurette seemed now to be drawing every shred of his confidence from him. He sighed audibly “I ask forgiveness because the past weeks have been intolerable for me. I ask forgiveness for acting the rutting boar and for taking you with unkind intent. I ask forgiveness for humiliating you before my nephew in an attempt to prove to him that you are none but my own.” He kept his gaze on her though he desperately desired to turn away. “Most of all, I ask forgiveness for any pain that my actions have inflicted upon you.”

He squared his broad shoulders. His tone became more conversational, but his passion was as intense.

“The loneliness that I have. felt without your attendance has told me that I need you, Maurette. “‘Twas my intent to take you away from the scene of your humiliation in the hope of winning back your confidence in me. I thought to wait a few days ere I attempted a reconciliation, but I could not wait. Now that Ravenshead is physically far away, I put-my trust in your forgiving nature. When we return, I pray that you will once more put your trust in me. In the meantime, ’tis my prayer that we may find some ground on which to rediscover that deep wealth of love that we once shared.”

His voice stopped so suddenly that Maurette was taken aback. The rush of words had carried her along on a tide of emotion so strong as to lift her beyond the shadowed room in which they stood. Jolted back to reality by the sudden silence in the chamber, Maurette realized the import of what had happened. Dominic was placing her on an equal footing with himself. She could forgive him or not; that was her power. She could say him nay and destroy whatever confidence he had managed to employ for this occasion. She wondered ruefully if this confidence had simply been a product of his male pride. Was his genuine concern for her feelings and their love that guided him or merely the presumption of her devotion? He had mentioned trust. Dominic waited patiently for her to answer. Her words, when they came, were a deep prayer that all he had said was true.

“I do love you, Dominic, but I must for this occasion assess your feelings. Do you care, as you say you do?”

“I do not blame your hesitancy, Maurette,” he said huskily.

“Do you not?” she asked softly. He wanted desperately to sweep her in his arms to prove his love, but he knew that was not what this conversation was about.

“I do not,” he said simply. “You have every right to be wary of me. I tell you this,” he paused to give weight to his simple words. “I do care.”

Maurette looked a long moment into his eyes. “I believe you,” she said finally. “I believe you because I need to believe you, Dominic.”

Dominic’s aspect lightened. This was what he had prayed for. To see the veil of uncertainty and doubt lifting from Maurette’s eyes was for him a treasured gift.

“All that I have told you is the truth, my beautiful Maurette. ‘Tis hard to accept such seeming change in a man, but the change is not change but the shedding of deceit.” He held up his hand when she would have spoken.

“I should have told you of Lucius from the beginning and of my sister’s secret. I know now how valuable you are to me, and I know, too, that I cannot shut you out of any part of my life. I excused myself, saying that I was protecting you. In fact, I was protecting myself. I believed you would think less of me if you knew the truth. And, he added, lowering his eyes, “I was not certain that I was capable of entrusting you with the secrets of my soul.”

“To consign to you such deep trust would be to commit myself to you forever. I had not the courage for that, Maurette. But now…”

“Hold, my love,” said Maurette gently. “I do not need the promise of marriage from you. I have gained what I have needed. There is time for the other when we are both sure of what we can yield.”

They were both silent for a long moment. The only sound in the room was the soft crack of the. fire. Shadows had filled the room, and in the lavender darkness, they moved together, seeking each other’s nearness. Embraced by an eternity of warming love, they stood holding each other. They knew that the well of feeling from which they drew their love could never again be disturbed.

“Do you imagine that Elizabeth will take offense if we are late for her holiday ball?” Maurette spoke very softly, and her eyes scanned the room -to rest on the small inner chamber where a fur-draped four-poster resided.

Dominic looked down at her in surprise and delight. Then, throwing back his head in laughter, he swept Maurette into his strong arms and carried her to the indicated piece of furniture. He laid her gently into its thick folds.

“The queen is a true romantic, I am told,” he said, brushing Maurette’s soft cheek with his fingertips.

“The queen, I am told,” said Maurette in feigned distress, “is most jealous where it concerns the affections of her courtiers.”

“Ah, yes,” said Dominic matching her tone. “‘Twould never do to offend Her Majesty. I have heard, however, that when she is secure in her own romances, she is a most generous and expansive matchmaker. “Take my word, little one,” he said fondly, “now that Francis, Duke of Alencon plays at court his courtly games, we are in no danger of the royal wrath.”

He sat down on the bed next to Maurette. He lifted her to him, cradling the back of her head in one muscled hand. “When Elizabeth is in love, we must all be so,” he said lightly. She insists upon it.” He looked down into Maurette’s trusting eyes. “In all events; my love, no danger exists or will ever exist in our loving.” He took her soft, ready lips in a tender kiss. He could not help but be aware of her slight apprehension. He was both tender and bold. He was confident of the persuasion of his manly prowess. And he was confident, too, in the sincerity of her response. He caressed her throat and shoulders with his breath and sensed her uncertainty slipping away.

With practiced fingers, he gently slipped her bodice off her shoulders and down her arms, revealing the silken flesh beneath. Her breasts strained against the fine woven threads of her lacy chemise. Her eyes were closed and her lips moist and invitingly parted in her passion.

Dominic lovingly removed the rest of her clothing. Then he removed his own and lay down beside her.

He brushed the perfection of her skin with one hand and teased her eager flesh with his lips and tongue. Her arms entwined around his neck, and her fingers were in his raven curls. Separating her thighs, he allowed his fingers to roam and to explore the core of her budding hunger. The warm, moist depths of her desire flowed it pulsating little palpitations, and Dominic knew that her eager young flesh was ready for his manhood. He drew himself on top of her and entered her gently at first, and then, as her response deepened, he thrust with unstrained force into her willing flesh.

Their souls came together as never before and soared above the earth in a heightened cascade of feeling and response. Together they merged and cried out their mutual exhilaration. Together they descended through cloud banks of rapture into the reality of the quiet room where they lay, exhausted and content, in the thick comfort of the furry counterpane that they had not bothered to withdraw.

In the cozy twilight of the afterglow of their rapture, they touched and caressed each other and created a silken world of contentment and peace. They relaxed in each other’s arms for a long time until it was time to face the evening’s entertainment.

Dominic raised himself on one arm. He could not believe his sweet fortune as he gazed down on Maurette nestled in his embrace. He was, by all accounts, a rogue. Much of his past he knew Maurette would learn through gossip here at court. Tongues wagged and stories grew to incredible proportions in this sequestered environment. His own reputation had grown and become impossibly fantastical on the flighty tongues of the bored matrons who took their tea and languished about the court on long afternoons Dominic’s raven eyebrows fused and formed a wrinkle of consternation on his forehead.

“My lord is discontent,” said Maurette when, upon opening her eyes, she found his troubled aspect. She smoothed his forehead with gentle fingers.

“Not discontented, little one,” he said. “‘Tis only that I fear certain rhapsodic creations of the ladies here at court in respect to my past life you may hear these tales and, taking them for truth, decide that I am more the rakehell than you originally perceived me to be.” He smiled and brushed her smooth cheek with his thumb. “Court life offers much opportunity for word painting, Maurette. And castle building of the most fantastic sort helps pass the time. Some here would have it that I have bedded more than half the household and instigated duels with the other half.”

“Am I instructed not to believe such tales, my lord?” Maurette slanted him a piquant glance.

“The duels and the bedding are flights of romantic fancy;” he said. “For the most part,” he added roguishly.

Maurette bolted up and away from him. Discovering her lacy chemise at the bottom of the bed, she flung it in his direction. It floated down to lie like a feather web on his bronzed chest. He regarded the silken white garment with a twinkle of amusement in his pewter eyes. Maurette turned away from him. The sight of his muscular flesh and glistening raven fur beneath her gossamer undergarment excited her in ways that she did not understand. She colored with embarrassment and swung her well-shaped legs over the edge of the bed. Dominic’s arm snaked out to encircle her waist. He dragged her gently back into his embrace.

Supporting himself with one muscular arm, he hovered over her, his lips inches from her own. She lay there looking up into his tender smile. She sensed that she had pleased him in some way and accepted his consuming kiss. They were lifted once more to the heights of rapture to melt into each other’s passionate hunger. Again, they soared and floated in that enchanted world that existed for them alone.

ROMANTIC VENTURE

CHAPTER THIRTY

Maurette and Dominic made their way into the throne room and edged among festively attired courtiers and gentlewomen who greeted Dominic with much tittering and great enthusiasm. Fluttering feathered fans in his direction and waving their perfumed scarves, one particularly bold group of ladies surrounded Dominic, and Maurette decided that she might as well have been invisible. Loosening her grip on Dominic’s forearm in the crush of lace and silks, she moved apart from the group.

Dominic glanced helplessly over his shoulder at her. She waved and indicated that she was going into the main ballroom. She hoped to spot Imogene and Greg there.

A man of medium height and thick build impeded her progress when he was shoved into her path. He apologized but shrugged helplessly as they were both carried willy-nilly into the ballroom. Bowing courteously, once they had been deposited in the crowd, he offered Maurette one of the silver goblets he carried.

“I was bringing this to another lady,” he said, “but methinks ’tis needed more here.”

Maurette smiled and accepted the refreshment. She murmured a polite thank you. “In truth, I would not purloin the lady’s drink, but I perceive there is little hope of your getting back across the floor, she said lightly.

The man chuckled amiably. “You have been deprived of escort, I see.”

“Yes,” said Maurette, smiling in the direction of the gallery where Dominic was still holding court among the ladies.

“Forgive them, my lady,” said the man. “they have not had the pleasure of the Silver Raven’s company in many months. They are exhausted with the waiting and over amplify their welcome.”

“You know Dominic?” Maurette looked up quizzically at the bearded man.

“My dear;” he said, smiling down at her, “all Britannia knows lord Warbrooke. The ladies in particular mourned his going from court and have much looked forward to his return. You can understand their enthusiasm, can you not?”

“I understand it,” said Maurette rather more coldly than she had intended, “but I do not like it.” She immediately regretted her abruptness with this amiable fellow. “Forgive me,” she said and raised her cup in salute to him. “I suppose ’tis a bit of a come uppance for me. In London, you see, I had quite a following of my own.”

The man smiled. “‘Tis hard,” he said genially, “But he is, after all, the Silver Raven.” Maurette gazed down into her drink and swirled it reflectively. “He is that famous then.” she said, not a question.

“Oh, yes,” said her companion. “He is that famous, though he would have it otherwise. Dominic Warbrooke has never sought the attention of the public. I believe that, unlike the likes of me, he would have been perfectly content with a quiet unremarked residence out of the notice of public life. I, you see, am much more in need of recognition than the average courtier and have, therefore, struck my own bargain with the devil, or” he smiled rakishly-“as we know him, the queen.”

Maurette gasped at such audacity. “Dare you speak thus, sir?” she breathed.

“I dare,” said the gentleman. Then he broke into a comfortable laugh. “She knows well, does our good Majesty, the price this old man has paid for her approbation. She knows and”-he leaned confidentially into Maurette”-she does dote upon it.”

“And just what is it you have given up?” Maurette said smiling.

“Why, all,” the man said expansively. “My wife, my work, my freedom, my peace of mind, my happiness. I have, you see, loved unwisely but too well.”

” ‘Tis hard to credit, sir, that you gave all that up for love. You must needs explain yourself to me,” she said.

“I shall explain in a word or, rather, two words, My name, dear lady, is Robert Dudley.”

“The earl of Leicester,” Maurette gasped.

“That one,” said the earl.

Maurette had known, as had all of London, of the queen’s long and tempestuous love affair with Leicester. His secret marriage and Elizabeth’s subsequent dismissal as well as her later recall of him back to court were subjects of constant gossip among the London gentry.

“And here you are once more,” Maurette said, “back at court and back in the queen’s good graces.”

“And I pray in yours.” He bowed again and cocked an eyebrow at his pretty companion.

Maurette chuckled. “Your reputation precedes you, sir. I should, if I were wise, be mindful of my chastity and of Dominic Warbrooke’s temper.”

“Would that were so,” he said ruefully. “In truth, I am old now and much abused by life and, if I am to employ the most rigorous honesty, no longer able to play the stag. I have the one more battle, and I shall retire to the aging arms of my good Elizabeth.”

” ‘The one more battle?’ ” Maurette inquired.

> “Has your husband not told you of the coming warfare?”

Maurette lowered her eyes. “Lord Warbrooke is not my husband,” she said softly.

“Forgive me,” said the earl.

Maurette looked up at him and smiled ruefully. “We are precontracted.”

“Ah,” said Dudley in understanding. ” ‘Tis a perfectly honorable estate.”

“Tell me of the coming battle. It is with the Spanish?”

” ‘Tis with the Spanish, my lady,” he said mildly. “It much puzzles me that you would inquire on it. Most women of my acquaintance except, of course, Her Majesty would prefer to lie abed in sweet ignorance of men’s doings. ‘Let them go and fight the storms, and labor in whatever painful way they must,’ say those women-though not often in words. ‘Let me lie here in warmth and peace and blissful unawareness,’ they pray. They obey their husbands dutifully for their pains, but they pray to remain unaware of what happens beyond the garden.”

“I am not one of those,” said Maurette.

“Nay,” said Robert, chuckling.

Just then, Dominic appeared at Maurette’s side and smiled at Sir Robert. “I have not abandoned you, my lady,” he said into her ear. “I see that you have not been lonely.”

“The earl has kept me well companioned,” she said, eyeing the older man piquantly.

“And I have enjoyed the company of your lady,” the earl said and drew Maurette’s and to his lips. “You are a most unconventional woman, my dear.” He offered a courtly leg and moved off into the crowd.

“Leicester seems in a felicitous humor this night,” Dominic said as he watched the older man.

“He has made a deep impression this night.” Maurette said stonily.

Dominic glanced down at her. “Has he?” he said lightly, for he did not know what she implied.

“Indeed he has. Before this night is through, my lord, we will speak of what Sir Robert has revealed.”

Dominic stiffened; realizing that Leicester’s penchant for intrigue had reared its ugly head to Dominic’s misfortune. “Oh, my lady,” Dominic said, quietly pleading, “for all that I have done, I have begged for and received your forgiveness. Now I ask if for my lapess.” He turned Maurette to face him and winced at her stern visage. “G-d grant me mercy, lady, and please you grant it too.”

Maurette desired to remain firm in her chastisement of him, but his face was so filled with chagrin that she relented. Reaching up, she brushed his cheek with her fingertips. “You have much to learn about accepting the love of a partner in life,” she said softly.

“What has that old Robin Dudley told you?” he said in piteous tones. “Relieve my torment, Maurette, and allow me to deny it.”

Maurette could not contain her amusement at his dramatic skill and responded in kind. “You must needs cry real tears, if you expect me to be moved, Dominic.”

“If that will urge you to explain you ire, I will do so,” he said, joining her in laughter.

When their laughter had died, Maurette said seriously, ” ‘Tis about the coming battle with the Spanish.”

“Ah,” said Dominic with understanding. “So he has mentioned that. It may happen, Maurette,” he said solemnly, gazing down into her eyes where lavender lights danced in their depths. “I was not keeping it a secret, little one. ‘Tis only that no one really knows what will happen on that front. By the summer, we are sure,” he said gently. “you have my vow that I shall discuss it with you.”

Dominic smiled. “I have had a most excellent teacher, my lady.” They entwined their arms and moved off to enjoy the party.

The main ballroom at Nonsuch was centrally placed in the lover level of the palace. Lofty French windows banked one solid wall and opened onto a terraced courtyard. A magnificent stone fireplace, in which a blazing fire lapped truculently at blackened stone carvings, covered another wall. To create a gracious and informal atmosphere of gentility and warmth in this room, Elizabeth had ordered silver bowls of her favorite roses set on every table. The room was hung with Persian tapestries, and chairs, tables, and low benches were draped with brown velvets set with jewels. Polished brass horns and stringed instruments of glowing wood, placed here and there on tables, invited the courtiers participation in the festivities. Before the night was over, Elizabeth would be urged to play the gold and silver virginal dominating one corner of the great room. For the dancing, seven young men in jester’s livery played a consort of seven ivory flutes. They piped among the gay-spirited guests, who needed no urging to enjoy the revelry.

Maurette and Dominic stood apart from the merrymaking, catching snatches of conversation, which, as Dominic had warned, revolved mostly around gossip. He and Maurette exchanged secret looks of amusement, recalling his words on the prevailing pastime.

Soon Queen Elizabeth herself entered the room to a light extended chord trilled by the flutists. As small and light as the music, she passed through an aisle created the courtiers and their ladies bowing and backing away Maurette stood on tiptoe to see the tiny sovereign, who had a dainty figure though her bosom was ample and well displayed. Elizabeth’s deep amber eyes seemed to sparkle like coals against her fair, white skin. Ropes of pearls wound through her head of abundant auburn curls, gems dripped from her throat and earlobes, and magnificent jeweled rings adorned every finger of her delicate hands. The queen curved her thin lips into a small smile. Maurette now understood Her Majesty’s often solemn countenance, for her teeth were blackened with decay. The smile vanished almost immediately in what Maurette recognized as a self-conscious display of vanity.

The great woman progressed to a small dais, where she sat upon an ornately carved stool, flanked by two handsome young men who bent low to hear the intimate words she whispered first to one and then the other. Low chuckles were heard in the hush of the great chamber before the queen turned to the company and indicated with a wave of her feathered fan that the festivities should resume. Surveying the room, her dazzling eyes came to rest on Dominic and Maurette. She immediately smiled that quicksilver expression of pleasure and bade them, with a flick of her bejeweled hand, to attend her.

Escorted by Dominic, Maurette moved in awed reverence toward the great lady and offered a deep curtsy. She had been presented once before to the queen after Elizabeth had asked to be introduced to the young woman who exhibited such prowess with her sword arm. Maurette wondered if the queen would remember. Lifting solemn lavender eyes, she heard Dominic introducing her. The queen smiled that disconcerting blackened smile, and her small hooked nose hung just above her upper lip. She held out her hand, and Maurette brushed it with her lips.

“Your grandmother is well, child?” inquired the queen in a soft clear voice.

“She is, Your Majesty-though I have not seen her-in some weeks.” Maurette’s voice came in a softly whispered stammer.

“Speaking with a monarch disturbs you.” Elizabeth had kept Maurette’s hand in her small soft one and was now regarding the younger woman with fond amusement.

” ‘Tis that I am honored that Her Majesty remembers me.”

“Oh, I recall you well, child,” said Elizabeth.. She paused for a moment. “The countess of Audley has spoken of you often, and I remember a breeched and booted girl who delighted me one summer in Islington, I believe it was, with her valiant display of swordsmanship.” The queen chuckled. “It Was very soon after that I engaged my good Robin as a tutor in that sport. But, we soon went back to archery lessons, for I never knew whether I was truly competent or whether the old rapscallion was merely indulging me.” Elizabeth was silent for a long moment. “Does Lady Violet ever speak of me?”

“Oh, Your Majesty,” Maurette blurted, “you must know she does.” Maurette gasped and dropped a humble curtsy at her bold words. “Forgive me,” she gasped. “I did not mean to speak so familiarly.”

The queen reared back her head, and musical laughter erupted from her slender throat.

“I am that fearsome,” she said to the man standing at her right. Then she turned to the one on her left in genuine amusement. “If I am that fearsome that I frighten gentle maidens. Pray tell me why my ministers are not thus cowed in my presence,” she added.

“They are not gentle maidens, methinks,” murmured the gentleman.

Elizabeth nodded in hearty agreement. “‘Tis true, Essex, ’tis too, too true.” She smiled fondly up at the extraordinarily handsome young courtier and patted the hand he had placed upon her slender shoulder before turning back to Maurette. The queen’s eyes were soft and pleasantly warm.

“‘Twould be either a curse or a blessing to enjoy such sweet humility in the members of my Privy Council, dear Lady Maurette. What think you, Dominic? Do you not agree that my councilors affect an all-too-familiar air with me?”

Dominic allowed a small smile to cross his lips. “Perforce Her Majesty should bid my lady to attend her at the next meeting of state. She might serve up an excellent lesson in how to address the queen.”

Elizabeth laughed another soft musical ripple of pleasure. “‘Tis excellent, good Dominic” she stated in her soft dear voice. “Perhaps, we shall have your lady attend us. We might find such a circumstance both amusing and instructive,” she said with the arch of a thin painted brow. “In the meanwhile, I would see the handsome Raven take his lady, to the floor for a dance. You have been absent far too long Dominic,” she said, leaning forward. “I have missed the sight of your comely form, and before this night is over,” she said, looking to Maurette with a mischievous smile, “I shall feel those longed-for ‘arms’ round my waist.” Her voice had taken on an intimate tone.

Maurette, watching the queen grace Dominic with a piquant smile, understood, in a sudden rush of enlightenment, Elizabeth’s fabled charms. She liked men, admired them, and they could not remain long in her presence without realizing that fact. Any man would be flattered by such open adulation, and Maurette hid a smile when she noted that Dominic was no different from the queen’s other conquests. His bronzed face took on a copper glow at the elderly woman’s obvious recognition of his manly charms. Her delight in his virility had actually made the Silver Raven blush.

The hours passed in a swirl of gossip and music. Maurette found herself twirled and lifted in the arms of many handsome courtiers and noted that Dominic also did not lack for partners. The admiration for the couple was as much caused by the queen’s attention as it was by their own attractiveness. Imogene, who had appeared at her sister’s side after the presentation, could barely contain her pride in Maurette’s success.

“You could live here forever,” whispered Imogene, twittering, into Maurette’s ear. “Her Majesty is so obviously taken with you that ‘twould not surprise me if she ask you to attend her on a permanent basis.”

Maurette smiled, enduring her sister’s rapturous esteem and was much relieved when Imogene progressed to the other topic of the evening; the whereabouts of the queen’s intended betrothed.

“The duke, of Alencon has not made an appearance this night,” Imogene said incredulously.” ‘Tis the talk of all at court. He is an odd wooer of a queen,” she huffed, “in that he tends not to woo but to disdain her company. I have wondered that the queen should endure such arrogant behavior.”

Imogene was obviously titillated, as were the other members of the court, and wondered in very intimate tones what amorous mysteries ‘the young son of’ the aging Catherine de Medici possessed to light the flame of Elizabeth’s forbearance. Other ladies had joined Imogene and Maurette throughout the course of the conversation and made their own observations on the situation.

“He is French,” twittered one girl to the ribald amusement of the others.

“And he is rough and a soldier,” giggled another.

The gossip became bold in equal measure to the sugared wine that was consumed, and Maurette found herself becoming bored with the often irreverent speculations. She was astonished that those who enjoyed so well the queen’s hospitality and good grace were the same who so disrespectfully discussed her private affairs. She sighed, realizing that Imogene was very much a part of this scornful bantering. The sweet and guileless girl of Maurette’s memory seemed to have disintegrated into the spiteful sophistry of court life.

By degrees, Maurette moved from the insolent cynicism of her contemporaries and found herself at last apart from them. Alone, she wandered to one of the lofty French doors and pushed it ajar to find that the late December night was cool and pleasant by comparison to the heated conversation and revelry within the ballroom. She stepped outside onto a silver-shadowed terrace.

Maurette felt the silken night-cooled air embrace her. Gazing up at the mellow nimbus of the winter moon, her cloth of silver gown, shimmering in its soft light, she was unaware that she was being observed.

In the darkness a dark shape huddled, watching in silence the cascading blue-black waves and the luster of pale skin as gentle night breezes lifted luminous silver skirts. The opalescent moonlit garden, it observed, reflected the pearl-like radiance of the quiescent woman.

A twig snapped, and Maurette shot a glance in the direction of the sudden noise. Just then, a wispy cloud shrouded the pale moon, and shifting shadows hid the movement of the dark form.

“Who is it?” Maurette breathed.

“‘Tis but me, lovely one,” whispered a male voice. The man emerged from the low bushes and, as the cloud moved on to unveil the moon’s pale light, his features revealed themselves to Maurette. He was short and thick-set, his hair dark, and his skin swarthy.

“Who are you?” said Maurette sharply.

“I am the proposed and disesteemed betrothed of Her Majesty, the queen,” he said laconically as he advanced to Maurette.

“You are Francis?” Maurette blurted.

In the silvered shadows, the features of the man claiming to be the affianced of the queen, took shape. The bold and arrogant duke of Alenon was something less than Maurette had expected. He was about twenty-five and his countenance seemed both heavy and soft. His face was a mass of skin eruptions, his dark hair hung in greasy tendrils over his forehead, and his eyes were hooded in a lazy, unfocused, watery gaze. When he smiled, he exposed teeth blackened by decay. He seemed to expect her reaction and laughed low in his throat.

“‘Tis hardly what you expected,” he said, offering Maurette an unsteady bow. “but I vow I am, in truth, the rash young duke of Alenon of whom you have heard so many bold tales. I am that prince, that son of Catherine de Medici, that hope and prayer of France and your beloved England.” He chuckled as he regarded Maurette’s look of disbelief with understanding.

“Forgive me,” she said uncertainly and dipped a curtsy to show her deference to the man’s rank if not his present condition. He carried a flagon, from which he took a long draught. As he tipped the vessel to his lips, wine spilled out to dribble down his chin and neck. His cheeks puffed with the liquid, he held the dripping pitcher out to Maurette. She murmured a polite disinclination to share his refreshment. He swallowed audibly and belched. Swiping with the back of his forearm at the liquid that had run in rivulets down his jaw, he smiled a lazy smile.

“You do not partake of spirit,” he slurred. “Good,” he added before she could answer. “‘Tis good.” He wiped again at the offending liquid, which now lay in puddles in his neckcloth. He wavered and, attempting to correct his stance, stumbled. Maurette grasped his wrist in an attempt to steady him, and laboriously he regained his balance. He splayed a palm toward her.

“Nay, dear lady,” he said gently, “do not waste your aid on the likes of me.” With a great effort, he shuffled to a low bench where he sat heavily. He patted the bench, nearly keeling over with the motion. “Come join me,” he said with forced brightness. “I shall not try to take advantage of you, m’ lady, for my affections is otherwise engaged.” He laughed a foolish chuckle.

“Why do you not attend our queen?” inquired Maurette gently.

He turned to look intently into Maurette’s eyes. For a long moment he seemed on the brink of a response, then he simply laughed again, this time a soft laugh. It was a manly laugh, and Maurette wondered what he might be like in other and better circumstances. The duke lowered his eyes and then as quickly raised them.

“Are your affections otherwise engaged, my lady?” he asked evenly.

“They are, my lord,” Maurette said softly. “I, too, am affianced. Dominic Warbrooke is the gentleman’s name.”

“Ah,” breathed Francis. “The duke of Ravenshead. His name is much touted in this court. Dominic Mar…broo…ke,” he said; rolling the name on his tongue.

“Warbrooke,” corrected Maurette in a gentle tone.

“War,” he said softly. ….. brook.” He gave each syllable its own emphasis. “Warbrooke. Did you ever stop to think how dichotomous that name is?” He looked into her face. “War, you see is. .. war.” He looked away from her and, in the moonlight, his profile seemed sculpted in sadness. “War,” he repeated, elongating the word. He gazed up at the moon. “‘Tis a terrible thing, war,” he said sadly. He was silent for a long moment. “I have been to war.” He turned to face Maurette Once again. “But a brooke, well…” he said, a slow smile forming on his lips. “A brook is a bed, a lovely, rippling bed.”

Maurette smiled too. She could not help but be taken with this sweet, sad, drunken man. “Perchance I could help you to yours,” she said gently.

“Let me tell you something about beds,” he said, ignoring her suggestion. “On a ship a bed is a swaying miracle of comfort. If you are a lowly seaman, you may enjoy that miracle. However, if you are a prince, if you are the son of a great queen, you may not. For the son of a great queen, they install a feather bed. I sleep where I am told, my lady,” he said with aching sadness. “‘Tis a truth not to be toyed with. I know it well enough, for I have been a son to a great queen all my life, and now, it seems, I shall be a husband to another great queen.” He dipped his head and covered his face with his hands. “Oh, sweet Jesus,” he breathed.

Maurette felt her throat close in pity for the man. “Do you not wish to marry Her Majesty?” she asked softly.

His head bobbed up. “Do you know something? I have not thought of wanting to or not.” He let out a sigh of resignation. “There has never been a question of wanting or not wanting. The only question has been whether or not she wanted me.”

“And she does?” asked Maurette.

He turned to face her, and in the moonlight, his soft brown eyes shimmered. “I have flattered, and she has been flattered. I have played the enamoured young wooer and she the not easily wooed. I have delighted her with my antics.” He stood and shambled over the short grasses of the terrace. “I play the dashing knight,” he said and mimed a sword fight. “I play the pet.” He became a scratching, long-armed monkey. “I play the blind man.” He closed his eyes and swiped futilely at the air; ending his efforts with an empty embrace. “And for an encore,” he said, scraping the ground with a sweeping bow, “I play the heir to the throne of France.”

He eyed Maurette, who was attempting to stifle her amusement at his antics. His own amusement was apparent. “I bring the lady gifts, which she accepts with great reluctance. I write her love poems,” he said, dropping to one knee before Maurette and placing his hands over his heart in an exaggerated gesture of amorous longing. “I whine for her, I wallow for her, and, most of all, I wait for her.” He paused and stood heavily.

“Then,” he continued, returning to his seat next to Maurette, “I receive a letter from my mother telling me that she bas received a message saying that Her Majesty may deign to consider my marriage proposal, on the condition,” he said, raising an imperious finger, “that my mother sign some treaty or other.” He shook his head with a resigned smile. “And all this time, dear lady,” he said softly, “I must content myself with lying abed in a snug four-poster on an English ship in an English harbor, eating English food, and bedding vapid English whores.”

He glanced at Maurette and apologized ruefully. “Once I begin being truthful, I am even in danger of being a boor. ‘Tis why I so seldom allow myself that indulgence.” Seeing Maurette’s smile of understanding, he continued. “English whores are nothing like the French, but English food exceeds itself each day in pale comparison to that which I am used to.” They both laughed.

“I am not familiar with French or English whores, my lord,” said Maurette, “but I have been eating English food my whole life and have found it most pleasing for my taste.”

“Ah,” said Francis enthusiastically, “but you have not enjoyed the delights of French cuisine, my lady.” He took both Maurette’s hands in both of his. “I shall tell you what we shall do. I shall leave tonight, and I shall spirit you back to my mother’s house and introduce you to some real food. We shall eat together until we both become very fat.” The man’s audacity was both startling and refreshing. Maurette smiled warmly at him.

“I think I should enjoy that with you, Francis, but I fear that Dominic Warbrooke would not approve our sojourn. Tell me this,” she said conspiratorially, “would you allow me to take him with us? Then he, too, could enjoy your French cuisine and find himself as fat and happy as we two.”

“I had the impression that you did not like fat men, my lady,” said a voice from the darkness behind them.

Startled, they both looked up to find Dominic standing over them. Francis was the first to rise.

“Forgive me, lord Warbrooke,” he said with profound solemnity. “I have drunk too much, I fear, and your lady but humors me. She is a good lady, and I am the rogue to have imposed myself upon her.”

“Please, sir,” Dominic said gently, attempting to mollify the duke’s embarrassment, “rest your mind, Sir Francis. I fear not for the propriety of this situation. My appearance and interjection were meant merely to join in your jest.” Dominic glanced down at Maurette, who shrugged one elegant shoulder to indicate her bemusement at the duke’s unnecessary penitence. “Ease your heart, noble Francis,” Dominic said, returning his attention to the subdued duke of Alencon. “I have every confidence in my lady’s ability to discourage unwanted advances.” He smiled. “Had she been displeased with your company, she would have made her displeasure known. I am in a position to attest to that. Let me also promise you that, had she taken offense to anything that you said or did, you would not now be standing your ground. You would instead be riding the hilt of a sword into eternity.”

“Or back to France?” the duke offered in a lighter tone.

Dominic nodded pleasantly. “This lady is most definite in her choice of companions.”

Francis regarded Maurette fondly. “Then I am doubly honored at her sharing with me a few moments of her time.”

Maurette rose from the bench. “Why do we not all go inside, for I am feeling the chill of this winter night?” Extending an arm to each man, she said, “May I be escorted by the two gentlemen here, who seemed to be enthralled by my womanly charms? The court will certainly have something about which to gossip if the three of us appear together among their company.” The three laughed gaily as they entwined their arms and moved toward the yellow light of the ballroom.

“Perhaps one of you would tell me about this trip we all must make to France.” Dominic said.

“Oh yes, in search of food, my lord,” said Maurette. “And-other things,” she added, tilting a glance at Francis. Francis smiled but paused at the doorway to the palace.

“I do not think I will go inside with you,” he said.

Dominic regarded him sternly. “You shall, indeed, enter with us, my lord.”

Francis looked up at the intimidating figure of his new friend. “I am drunk, Lord Warbrooke,” he said softly, “and unkempt.”

“You are no different than the rest of the company,” Dominic answered, placing a hand on the younger man’s shoulder. “Come in with us, sir.” he said in a quiet tone.

“Perhaps I shall go in,” he said, a new confidence in his voice. Her Majesty may say me nay, but she shall, before this night is out, say it to me and not my mother.” They all laughed and then, composing themselves, made their way into the palace.

ROMANTIC VENTURE

CHAPTER THIRTY-TWO

Time passed quickly and pleasantly at Nonsuch despite the court life which Maurette found a strain. Living publicly was not much to her liking. Though Ravenshead loomed before her as the fearful end to the happy sojourn in Surrey, Maurette had become anxious to return to a private life.

The queen had made a great show of “imploring” Maurette to attend her in her chamber during the earliest days of the holiday. The room was in the fifth-floor tower and looked down on four sides on the grounds and forests of the estate. Mullioned windows refracted the pale winter sun that dappled the groin-vaulted ceiling with wavering shadows of dusky light.

In the hush of the winter afternoons, Maurette would sit with the queen and read to her, or the two women would talk softly on many subjects. Maurette had found it easier and easier to speak with Elizabeth in that cozy privacy and began to understand her grandmother’s great affinity for the queen.

“‘Tis sadistic of these Spanish,” Maurette said one afternoon to Elizabeth. “They keep us on tenterhooks. They threaten invasion and do nothing.”

Elizabeth nodded her gray head. Maurette had been shocked to see the thin white covering of wispy hair that had been revealed the first time that the queen had removed her red wig in Maurette’s presence. Now it did not shock her as she noted the baldness that Elizabeth’s nodding head revealed.

“The Spanish have ever been known for their love of intrigue,” Elizabeth said with a soft sigh. “Beyond that,” she said, lifting her dazzling eyes to Maurette, “Phillip is a sick old man. He dares not tamper in his last days with a monarch of England, but he will because he must.” She chuckled low in her throat.

“Did you know that he loved me once?” She nodded at Maurette’s bemusement. “He did. After my sister, Mary, died, that old Papist asked me to marry him. “She pursed her lips in deep reflection. “Some say ’tis because of my rejection of his suit that he now threatens us. But we know better,” she said sadly. “We know ’tis ‘they’ that will not allow poor old Philip to die in peace. Do you know who ‘they’ are, child?”

Maurette shook her head.

” ‘They,’ ” said Elizabeth, placing a thin finger to the side of her nose, “are the unwashed masses whose whims rule a king. You think Elizabeth Tudor rules England? She does not. Her ministers go out among them and hear their wished and then come back and tell her what ‘they’ want. Elizabeth Tudor simply carries out their design.”

“Do not,” Maurette ventured in a small voice; “the ministers often relay what the ministers want?”

The queen glanced at her shrewdly. “You speak of my trusted confidants thus?”

” ‘Tis only that I cannot imagine that the average man or woman on the streets of London wishes war with anyone,” Maurette said earnestly.

Elizabeth cocked what would have been an eyebrow had she, in truth, had an eyebrow. Then she began to laugh. Her head went back in pure amusement.

“Oh, child,” she said attempting to control her mirth, “you have placed your delicate finger on the exact problem. Forgive me,” she said shaking her head tiredly, “but the power lies not in their own worth but in the worth I bestow upon those ungodly few. In your innocence, you have spotted the inequities of rule. I know too well their devious ways. Except for my old friend Burghley and that cynic Cecil, I trust them not. And yet,” she said, drawing a deep breath and exhaling forlornly, “to whom am I to give the power, if not to them? To whom shall I listen, if not to those learned men? Often they provide just the right answers. When their own ambition succumbs to the exigencies of what needs doing, they can be most helpful.” Elizabeth sighed.

“Oh, child, I am but a woman, though a monarch. Sometimes, I would give all that possess if I were the product of a fishmonger and his fat wife and not the daughter of Henry Tudor.”

Elizabeth lay her head on the padded back of her small throne. Her eyes closed, and Maurette gently took the goblet of watered wine she held in her hand. Elizabeth’s lids lifted briefly and she smiled. Then she seemed to drift into a kind of somnambulant reverie.

“My mother was thought a whore.”

Maurette said nothing.

“She was a great and gallant woman, a woman of the masses. Had she been allowed to rule, she would have led them wisely and well. My father, you see, was a fool. He thought and acted through his breeches.”

Maurette felt a gasp rise in her throat, which she suppressed, and remained silent. Elizabeth continued. Her voice was mesmerizing in the softly lit chamber.

“Henry the self-indulgent, Henry the boorish, the loud, the spoil-it, started all this.” She raised her hand weakly to encompass the events that surrounded and threatened to overwhelm her throne. “All…this that now engulfs our people, our beloved England, was caused by that insatiable old turd’s relentless lust.” Elizabeth chuckled.

“She must have been quite a woman, my mother-sainted, headless thing. Poor old faithful Katherine. Poor Catholic Katherine. She gave him, Mary, and my mother, for whom he abandoned his religion, gave him me. He sired no sons until Jane’s Edward-weak and dying from the start. All this.” She said sleepily, “my legacy.”

She closed her eyes. Her next words, when they came, were born of vehemence and profound sadness. “If I had been cloven instead of cleft, they would not treat me thus.” She paused reflectively. “Write that, child,” she said barely audibly. “I wish to remark that thought to my faithful and trusted ministers.” She let out a sharp laugh.

Maurette scrambled up to search for quill and parchment. By the time she had found it and moved back to Elizabeth, prepared to write down her words, the sovereign of all Britannia was deep in slumber.

Maurette spent her last night at Nonsuch in the company of her sister, Imogene, Dominic and the other men at could were immersed with the queen in discussions of their various roles and obligations regarding the upcoming battle with the Spanish. Maurette knew that Dominic would be much in demand where that confrontation was concerned and felt a vague and rising disquietude.

“Do you know anything of the coming battle?” She ask Imogene when they were sipping tea that night in Maurette’s warm chamber.

“I know not what you refer to, sister,” said Imogene with a quizzical arch of her eyebrows. “A batter, you say. Oh, my. Thank G-d, Greg is no soldier. He would not make a very resplendent one, you know.” She smiled mischievously. “He has flattened feet and a swayed back. And when he sits for a long time in one place, he aches with such loud mewlings that I must feed him hot wine and pack him with mustard.”

Maurette laughed in spite of her growing perturbation.

“Many’s the night,” continued Imogene, “that his poor hind end must be raised by a bolster while he sleeps on his stomach. ‘Tis invariably those mornings that the queen rouses everyone early for a hunt.”

Both girls laughed.

“No, my Greg would make no soldier,” said Imogene with a giggle.

“I wish, in many ways, that I could say those things of Dominic,” said Maurette sadly. “If there is a battle, I can see him shoving his way to the front lines, to the stabbing violence of the thing, to fight gallantly for his country. I do honor that raging heroism that has characterized his life, little sister, but I also fear it.”

Imogene nodded. She understood too well her sister’s fears and, in truth, envied her them. The flaccid Gregory would never be a hero. Imogene placed a hand on her stomach. “Perhaps, ’twas just as well, she thought.

“Let us speak of other things tonight, dear Maurette,” she said, brightening. “‘Tis your last night at court, and I wish to hear your impressions.”

Though Maurette had not appreciated the scornful gossips she had found at court, she had not trouble speaking with her sister on a private basis of all that she had seen.

They talked for many hours that night. They poured out their sympathy for the drunken Francis and decided Catherine de Medici’s son would never become husband to Elizabeth, he was far too weak. They giggled over Maurette’s encounter with Leicester and wondered if Elizabeth would enjoy one more fling with the old nobleman. And they tried to decide upon a name for Imogene and Gregory’s babe.

The mention of Robin Dudley had brought to Maurette’s mind the earl’s observation of woman, vilifying their disinterest in their husband’s business. Maurette could not, in truth, lay blame on any woman who chose that particular path. It was by far the easier path.

“…is absolutely the most awful name I can imagine. Don’t you agree, Maurette?” Imogene was speaking and Maurette’s mind had been wandering. “I said that Hugh is not a name that I would choose for a son of mine,” she repeated. “Do you agree, dear Maurette?”

“I like Hugh,” said Maurette abstractedly.

“You could not care less about your nephew’s name,” said Imogene, her mouth forming a small petulant moue.

Maurette smiled and patted Imogene’s hand. “I am sorry, little sister,” she said gently. “My mind is not, in truth, on that happy dilemma. But,’ she added brightly, “I do like the Hugh.”

“So do I,” said Imogene, her bright curls bouncing ” ‘Tis only that it was Mary Paar’s suggestion, and you know how I dislike that woman.”

The two girls embraced and laughed. The sun was creeping over the horizon before they sought their beds. “I shall be leaving very early this morn,” Maurette said as she ushered Imogene from her chamber. “And I shall miss you with all my heart.”

“And I you, dear sister. May sweet fortune attend you till we see each other again.”

“And you.”

The sisters embraced once more before they parted for what they both knew to be a very long time.

ROMANTIC VENTURE

CHAPTER THIRTY-THREE

Spring blossomed at Ravenshead, and the air was heavy with the scents and sounds of the melting season. For some time Maurette had known that she carried Dominic’s babe within her body. And though, for the first few weeks of that knowledge, she had felt tired and unwell, she now had an energy and a vitality that she had never before experienced.

The Castle Ravenshead had taken on a new luster from Maurette’s tireless ministrations. Wood glowed with layers of wax, and windows, polished to a high sheen, admitted the bright springtime sun. Embrasures had been swept, carpets laid, and candles installed. Maurette had even made forays into some of the upper chambers and found in the neglected rooms some old pieces that when rubbed and polished, showed themselves to be fine antique furniture. Geoff was always at her side, hauling heavy chairs and rolled-up carpets down dusty staircases and through mildewed passages. With his sleeves rolled above his elbows, he hand-rubbed beeswax into the wood and beat centuries of dust from carpets and hangings. Ben admonished them both that they must take their ease.

“Especially now,” he said one evening when he and Maurette were seated alone before her chamber fire.

Her eyes widened. “You know, Ben?” she said with astonishment, for she had told no one.

“I have known for weeks,” he said, drawing his shawl around his thin shoulders and wiping his dripping nose with a square of linen. He nodded and smiled at her look of disbelief. “I have known, in truth, since we returned from Surrey.”

“You could not have known,” Maurette said pettishly. “Even I did not know it.”

Ben laughed softly. “‘Tis not for nothing I call myself Doctor Tremain. I have kept a close watch on you, Maurette, and ’tis my suggestion that you cease these forays into damn, musty turrets. ‘Tis also my suggestion,” he said gently, “that you allow me to examine you. If my calculations are correct, you are in the fourth month of your term. We should make certain that you are progressing normally.’

Maurette bit her lip reflectively. “I suppose that you are right, Ben,” she conceded.

“You know I am,” he stated, eyeing her levelly. “And you know I am correct also in my next suggestion. You, dear Maurette, must advise Dominic of this circumstance.”

Maurette gave him a startled glance and then looked into the rosy fire that danced on the hearth. “Of course you are correct, Ben,” she said softly, “but I have not been able to bring myself to it. He has seemed so happy since our return. I have no idea what his reaction might be to such news.

“Every man wants a son, Maurette,” Ben said encouragingly. “He even wants a daughter, if that is all there is to be,” he chuckled.

Maurette arched an elegant brow in his direction, and he splayed his hand toward her.

“I but jest, Maurette,” he said soothingly. “Any man would welcome the thought of a child.”

“And what of the reality of one, Ben? You forgot that before six months hence, I might be gone from Ravenshead. Do you imagine that I would leave a child here to be cared for by the sullen Lydia? And do you imagine Dominic Warbrooke allowing a son of his to be taken from him?” She smiled ruefully. “What a battle we would be in for, if he tried to keep the child. Perhaps we should all pray for a daughter.”

“Perhaps,” Ben said quietly, “we should all pray for a wedding.”

Maurette nodded her assent. “There was a time at Nonsuch when he was about to propose such a thing,” she said reflectively, “but Dominic has not mentioned it since. And, in truth, Ben, I do not wish a marriage based on a man’s obligation or his sense of parental fulfillment,” She leaned toward the doctor. “There was a time I would have welcomed a proposal of marriage from Dominic Warbrooke. But now…” Her voice trailed off.

“Do you imagine,” Ben said gently, “that Dominic would, in truth, wed you out of a sense of obligation?” He shook his head. “Nay, Maurette. Oh I must agree with you that he might attempt to keep his son, but he would never take a woman to wife for that purpose. Beyond that, my dear,” Ben added warmly, “’tis a fact that is perceived by all; Dominic Warbrooke loves you, purely and simply. I have known the man for many years. He has bedded many women, but he has loved only you.”

“Will you be truthful with me if I ask you a question, Ben?” When Ben arched an eyebrow at such a query, she smiled and said, “Of course, you will. ‘Tis of a personal nature, my inquiry, and is why I asked the question.” She paused and leaned back on the settee. Lowering her eyes, she said. “Lydia led me to believe some time ago that I was not the first to be brought here by Dominic. She intimated that here had been others.” She looked up to find Ben smiling.

“Dominic has brought no other here, Maurette. He had never even wished to. I believe that I can make such a statement because I know the man. He has kept this place a haven for Lydia. He would never have risked detection of his sister’s secret for a mere dalliance. When he brought you here, I knew the truth of this circumstance. He loves you.” Now it was Ben’s turn to lean confidentially forward. “You must needs know about Lydia. As you have perceived, she is a jealous woman-of this house, of her privacy, of her servants, and…” he added with a guarded smile, “she is jealous of Dominic.”

Maurette uttered a small sound, but Ben went on.

“Oh, she is not jealous of him in the manner that a woman is jealous of a man. Jealousy is a perverse emotion at best, and Lydia’s jealousy is a travesty of that perversity. I have always sensed that she made up the story of her father’s ‘ailing mind,’ for that old man was as right-minded as a –man can be. Perhaps she did it to get Dominic’s attention.

“In truth, we often sojourned to Ravenshead when the old lord was alive. After his unfortunate death, we rarely visited, and Lydia seemed contented– enough -until you -appeared on -the scene. Perhaps she fears that Dominic’s love for you will take him away from her.” He shook his head.

“Perhaps we shall never know the mystery of Lydia Hamilton. One thing, however. I believe that you are correct in one assertion. ‘Twould not do to leave your babe in Lydia’s care. The woman has traversed the road from a lonely widow to an unstable creature whom I trust not.”

“You have eased my mind, Ben, while at the same time given me other worries,” Maurette said, chewing on her lower lip. “I, too, have perceived Lydia to be unstable, but I would deem -her harmless.”

Ben shrugged. “I shall pray that your assessment is true,” he said. “In the meantime, as long as I am praying anyway, I shall add my prayers for a proper marriage.”

“A proper marriage, Ben,” said Maurette with a smile, “not one based on obligation or a sense of duty.”

They both laughed.

The peaceful environs were shattered as Geoffrey and Dominic burst into the room. Dominic moved to Maurette and swept her up in his arms. He applied a sweet kiss to her lips and then gave her news that he knew she had been hoping to hear.

“Your desire to entertain in this house is about to t fulfilled,” he said. “Get your friend Geoff, here, to help you with final preparations, for we are to have guests at last, little one.”

Maurette looked at him in puzzlement. “When, Dominic,” she inquired breathlessly, “and whom are we to entertain?”

“We shall be hosting none other than Britain’s brightest star, Sir Francis Drake,” he said with pride.

Maurette gasped.

“And well you should be awed, sweet, for that great seaman will be here within the week. Are you not happy?” Dominic asked, uncertainty clear in his tone.

“Oh, Dominic, of course I am happy.” Maurette smiled weakly.

Ben snorted. “You might have given her a less formidable guest to practice on before you dropped Sir Francis in her lap.”

“‘Tis thrilling news, Dominic,” Maurette said with forced brightness as she looked into his pride-filled eyes. “We shall have everything at the ready, shall we not, Geoff.”

Geoffrey smiled ruefully. “Of course we shall, my lady,” he said. In truth, he knew what thoughts must have been flying through Maurette’s startled brain at the moment and wondered that his captain and friend of many years could not see it. Maurette had thought to entertain a few neighbors, and now she was expected to welcome a world-famous explorer to her table. He shook his head and eyed Maurette fondly. Whatever her dismay, she was putting up a brave show. Such a courageous lady, Geoffrey laughed to himself. Sweet fortune had truly smiled on Dominic Warbrooke.

The days passed in a whirl of anticipatory preparations. Even the usually stolid Jonathan was ruffled and intolerant of any behavior suggesting vacillation on the part of the servants. He bustled throughout the castle with astonishing zeal. The servants who were just recovering from Maurette’s cleaning project found themselves caught up in Jonathan’s seething flurry of activity. Each morn, he would attend Maurette, and she would give him a list of what must be done. By evening all would have been accomplished, and the Servants, to a person, would be exhausted. Jonathan spared no one. Kitty was set to polishing silver. Ruth, the laundress, mended carpets. The buttery maid mixed herbs to be set in small pots through-out the lower chambers.

No one was spared, least of all Maurette. She supervised and participated in the preparation of the apartments where Sir Francis and his entourage would stay. She and Geoff cleaned several small chambers and saw to their decoration until Ben, who had been installed as official wood gatherer, insisted that Maurette cease her demanding schedule. Maurette agreed, but only to the extent that she would not participate in moving furniture or lifting heavy objects.

Ben had low benches installed outside of every chamber where Maurette was working and bade her supervise the preparations from there. And, though Maurette hated inactivity when there was so much to be done, she knew that Ben was right. She had been feeling the strain of the past few days and welcomed the enforced rest. Geoff, who had also been concerned, was happier too and worked twice as hard carrying out her instructions.

During the few days before Drake’s arrival, Maurette had seen Lydia several times from afar. The lady never approached the frenzied activity, but watched at a distance either from a shadowed gallery or behind a lattice postern. Maurette felt a great sympathy well up inside her for Lydia, for after all, this was her home. For her sake, Maurette had seen to it that all but one turret stair was closed to the chapel. She understood Dominic’s apprehension concerning his sister’s religious secret but felt sure that Lydia’s private life would never be in danger of discovery. She longed to tell the older woman that no threat existed for her, but whenever Maurette approached her, Lydia would vanish.

On the eve of Drake’s arrival Maurette had Lydia summoned to her chamber.

The room was a swirl with gowns and ribbons an lengths of pearls and other gems to be wound through Maurette’s hair. Kitty and she perused the untidy mass of clothing and accessories.

“Pray you are as efficient as I have perceived you to be, Kitty,” Maurette moaned. “I can make no sense of all this.”

Kitty laughed brightly and attacked the heaps of jewels and gowns. The young woman loved a challenge.

At that moment, Lydia entered and stood just inside the doorway, eyeing the fevered scene with disgust.

“You wished to see me, Maurette,” she said flatly.

Maurette turned and spotted Lydia. “Do come inside,” she said lightly. “I cannot offer you a seat, but I do want to speak with you, Lydia.”

The other woman moved into the chamber.

“‘Twas my wish that you should not concerned the visit by Sir Francis,” she continued as Lydia looked stonily into her eyes “I wanted you to know, Lydia, you are well protected in this house as always. Nothing has changed in that regard. And, of course, Dominic an I pray that you will attend us each night at dinner.”

Lydia said nothing. The bitterness in her eyes scalded Maurette and made her shudder.

“I mean you no harm, Lydia,” she said softly.

“Do you not?” asked Lydia.

“Whether or not you believe me, I have never meant you harm. It has only been my wish to become a part of Dominic’s life.”

Lydia regarded Maurette levelly, then turned her eyes on the rest of the room, making Maurette feel self-conscious about the disarray. But Lydia merely stared and said nothing. Then, without a word, the woman left the chamber.

Maurette sighed “I tried, Kit,” she said sadly.

“Yes, you did,” stated Kitty. Maurette moved to the girl and embraced her.

“Thank you, Kit, for being my friend.” She smiled, as Kitty’s soft brown eyes regarded her seriously.

“‘Tis not a difficult thing to be a friend to one so gentle,” she said solemnly. “Now, please, my lady,” she said mournfully, “you must needs decide on what you will wear for Sir Francis’s visit. Both young women resignedly attacked the pile of clothes.

“I must tell you this,” the distinguished voyager was saying, “The ships that sail under the flag of England are the best armed in the world. Beyond that, the invincible’ Armada is, in truth, already crippled. I have personally set fire to at least one hundred of their most valued galleons, thus delaying the Spanish attack for almost a year.”

The listeners regarded Sir Francis Drake in rapt awe. He was a handsome man, Maurette noted. A pile of dark curls covered his head, and a well trimmed beard of a lighter color fashionably sheathed his chin and jaw. He wore a high ruffed collar, and his clothes were of the richest fabrics with jeweled buttons and shiny epaulets that signaled the man’s wealth. It was rumored that Sir Francis had enriched the royal coffers to an immodest degree, but it was obvious that not all his money went to his queen.

Dinner had progressed without incident, though Maurette was sorry Lydia had not joined them. When the company moved back to the withdrawing room for brandy, Maurette felt a vague discomfort at being the only woman there and at realizing that the men would probably be more comfortable without her presence. She detected no reticence in the men’s talk, however, and decided that it was her own anxieties that caused her disquietude and nothing any of the men had indicated. Women were not usually welcomed in such circles, but as she was fascinated by the conversation and Dominic was eyeing her pridefully and in no way indicating that she should absent herself, she shrugged off her discomfort and listened contentedly to the talk.

“Tell us of the Spanish strength, Sir Francis,” Dominic said as he lowered himself onto the small sofa next to Maurette.

“The heart of the Spanish Armada,” said Sir Francis, “is a mere twenty Portuguese and Castilian galleons carrying no more than fifty-two guns. There are, perhaps, four Italian gallowses and less than forty merchant ships. Do you know what makes them seem invincible?” he asked, his eyes twinkling roguishly. “I shall tell you. ‘Tis their great size and bulk. Some have main timbers four and five feet thick, and that is the very reason they are so vulnerable. Why, the ocean groans beneath their weight!” He laughed. “Oh, they look imposing and dangerous, but they are, in truth; clumsy. ‘Twould require a hurricane to move them. The commander of this ponderous force is the equally ponderous Medina Sidonia. He is as unseaworthy as his ships, which were designed, I should add, for the smooth waters of the Mediterranean and not for our stormy oceans.

“My cousin, Sir John Hawkins,” he went on pridefully, has designed and modified our own force to the extent that we now sail the fastest and most perfectly proportioned vessels in the world. They are very nearly unsinkable. Sir John has done away with the towering structure above the main deck of the traditional warship and has leveled off the decklines. Our ships are now lighter, have more numerous guns, and are thus more agile and more deadly. Unlike the Spanish, we know that this is a sea war and not a land war at sea.”

“‘Tell us, Vice Admiral,” interjected Geoffrey, “how does Lord Admiral Howard perceive our chances against the Spanish?”

Sir Francis leaned forward. “He has assured Her Majesty that the best ships in the world are hers to command. Further, he has every faith that our ships are manned by the finest sailors in the world. The raids upon our ships and shorelines are as needle points in a boar’s hide. If the Spanish attack us-and Charles Howard is convinced that they will-we will defeat them.”

Sir Francis accepted another draught of brandy and leaned back in his chair. He smiled in Maurette’s direction. “I pray that I have assured our female listener that she need not fear for home and hearth.”

Maurette smiled. She lowered her eyes at the intent perusal of the males. If she felt any fear, it was for Dominic, and she wished that he was more retiring in his ways. In truth, she wished that he was more like the unambiguous Gregory; it would have eased her mind if Dominic had a bad back. She mentioned none of this to the distinguished Vice Admiral of the navy.

“I wonder what has brought you to your high position, Sir Francis,” she said tranquilly. Maurette was ever aware that the type of man who was now so comfortable with his present status, as was Sir Francis Drake, was ever eager to talk of his beginnings. Drake laughed and toasted his beautiful young hostess.

“I was, in fact, a purser working my way to becoming a respectable privateer, when I met your grandfather, Lord Audley, and his remarkable first mate, Lady violet.” He enjoyed hugely the widening of Maurette’s eyes. “Yes,” he added with a broad grin. “I knew the illustrious couple; I had neither Jason’s connections nor his good fortune to have engaged the attention of such a lovely woman as Your dear grandmother. And so it took me a long time to obtain my heart’s desire. I wanted to view the greatest ocean in the world. But when I did that, I then desired something more. And so I sailed around the world, as Dominic well knows, with the Spanish nipping at my heels.”

“And what is your heart’s desire now?” Maurette Inquired.

“To beat the Spanish;” he said gently. “And with Dominic’s help, I shall.”

“My curiosity is well satisfied, Sir Francis, and now, if you gentlemen will excuse me, I shall retire.” She stood, and Dominic rose also to escort her to her chamber.

“Please, give my regards to your glorious grandmother,” Sir Francis said. Assured the distinguished man that she would do so, she left the withdrawing room.

When Dominic returned, a solemn air had taken over the company. He refilled the men’s goblets and moved to the fire, which seethed and cracked loudly in the silent chamber.

Sir Francis finally broke the ominous silence. “I must speak of less pleasant things, Dominic,” he said significantly. “I would not frighten your lady, and so I have saved this news till last.” All attention was riveted on the visiting mariner. “There is one man who can guarantee our defeat of the Spanish. His name is Frederigo Giambelli. He has invented an evil improvisation called the hell-burner or fire ship. ‘Tis a vessel that detonates itself on contact with an enemy ship.” All were silent as Drake continued on the use of this hateful weapon.

“We must have Giambelli to supervise the outfitting of these ships,” he said. “I need someone to go to Italy and bring him back here.” No one spoke.

“The ships must be covered with pitch and ignited and aimed toward the enemy with exact precision. These maneuvers must be carried out in darkness, and the few men crewing the ships must know exactly when to abandon them. Guns filled with powder and double-shot will be left aboard the ships to detonate when the pitch fires grow hot enough. To attain the fullest effectiveness of these ships, we need Giambelli. Beyond that, I must seek volunteers to captain and crew the vessels.”

Drake took a long pause. He targeted Dominic finally. “I am offering one of my own ships to be sacrificed, but I have no men to crew it once ft has been equipped as a hell-runner.” Again Drake was silent.

Finally, Dominic spoke. “‘Twould seem, Sir Francis, that your mission here is twofold.” Drake nodded. “You need men to travel to Italy to bring Giambelli to England, and you need a captain and crew for your ship.”

Drake nodded curtly. “The two hundred ton Thomas will make a formidable weapon, but it must needs be handled by men who know exactly what they are doing. I cannot entrust such a deadly armament to just any sailor. That is why, Lord Warbrooke,” he said evenly, “I have come to you.”

“I understand,” Dominic said tersely.

Into the night, the men spoke in hushed tones of what needed to be done and decided that Geoffrey and Dominic would ride out with Drake on the morrow. Cautioned that absolute secrecy must attend their mission, they knew the spiriting of Giambelli from Italy was both dangerous and potentially useful to the enemy. The Spanish would give much to have either the man or; at the very least, the knowledge of his presence in England.

Dominic and Geoffrey understood well the need for uncompromising discretion.

Ben was deeply relieved when asked to remain at Ravenshead. Having no fear for his own safety, he recognized that Maurette needed him more than ever now. He gave Dominic the name of a young apprentice with whom he had worked in London to replace him as ship’s doctor on the Raven.

That night Dominic embraced Maurette in the circle of his arms and told her of the journey he must make but not of its purpose. He also told her of the strong possibility of a Spanish attack on English shores but not of his role in the fighting.

Maurette listened and understood his inability to explain all to her. She accepted that Dominic’s restraint did not represent a reluctance on his part to share the details of his mission but was a necessity for the purpose of security. She shuddered at the thought of his entering battle, but he assured her that on his return from his mission, he would satisfy any curiosity she had concerning that circumstance. Dominic could not bring himself to tell her of the danger he would face as the captain of a hell-burner. He did not, in truth, know if he wanted to think of it himself at the moment.

As he held Maurette’s supple ripeness to his hard length, Dominic Warbrooke for the first time in his life, was not looking forward to the commencement of a great adventure.

ROMANTIC VENTURE

CHAPTER THIRTY-FOUR

From the north tower, Lucius Hamilton watched the departure of his uncle through narrowed eyes. The clamorous roar of their horses’ hooves had barely died when a harsh voice from behind him demanded his attention.

“Shall we act now?” Lydia’s features were a tautened mask.

“Such an eager doer of evil,” Lucius said as a reptilian smile crossed his face. “Do you not think ‘twould be rather impetuous of us to act so soon?”

“I say we take her now.” Lydia turned away from her son and plucked at the palms of her hands. “I have waited long for this.”

The young man leaned back against a buttress. He crossed his arms over his broad chest. “Is it politics or revenge that guides my good mother?” he said silkily.

Lydia stiffened. “I have endured her unholy power over this household long enough,” she said evenly. “I want the chit dead.”

“As you wanted your father dead?”

Lydia shot him a glance. Her mouth twitched, and her gray-green eyes narrowed. “This time there will be no question,” she spat. “I have no loyalties where that one is concerned.”

Flanked by holy statuary and with tall candles burning behind her, she stood before the altar in the dim chapel. Lucius almost laughed aloud at the ironic picture she made. She was a hats-filled gorgon amid the gentle images of her religion.

Lucius suppressed his amusement. “To say it precisely, Mother, ’tis not my intention to kill her.”

“You will do as I say.”

“No, Mother, I will not.” Lucius shrugged away from the wail. “Even your terrible malice must be tempered by the knowledge that she can be of use to both of us. Dead, she is simply dead, but alive, she may be an excellent bargaining tool should we, in truth, need to bargain. Even you must perceive that we cannot hide our activities from Dominic forever. With the Spanish looming at our doorstep, security will be heightened on all levels. If the contents of the Ravenshead keep were discovered even now, we would find ourselves dancing from the nearest gibbet. Your brother and my uncle would not bother with the formality of a court trial. As my own experience will tell you, he metes out his own justice. And it is a cruel justice, Mother.”

Lucius advanced on his mother. Even her undainty size was dwarfed by her son.

“If our ‘rebellious’ activities should be discovered, we can resurrect both Dominic’s father and the sweet Maurette and use them as bargaining tools.”

“‘Sweet Maurette,”, Lydia repeated, her voice low and edged with steel.

Lucius smiled and nodded lazily. “Oh, yes,” he said softly, “That is another consideration.”

He moved past his mother and poured himself a goblet of sacramental wine and lifted it in an amiable toast.

“‘Tis not entirely for the cause of our martyred Scottish queen that I spare the child.” He drank deeply.

Lydia watched him. Her fists were clenched and her temples were corded with coursing hatred. “You have never cared for the true cause, Lucius Hamilton. Your only ’cause’ has been yourself.”

Lucius laughed openly now. “And you, Mother,” he said derisively. What shall we say of a woman who, while outwardly practicing the gentlest of religions, murders cold-bloodedly a poor innocent kitchen wench who had the bad fortune to discover a keep full of mutineers and rioters? What shall we say of a woman who enslaves her own father and accuses him of the terrible crime of suicide? And what shall we say of a woman who even now plans the murder of the only woman her brother has ever loved? And all this in the name of a G-d she claims to love beyond all else.” Lucius’s face was murderously dark. “Do not dare accuse me of hypocrisy, woman. If I am a hypocrite, I have learned my lessons at my mother’s knee.”

Lydia backed away from him down the aisle of the small chapel. “I will agree,” she said evenly. “But, unlike my father, the ‘sweet Maurette’ must be aware at all times of who has taken her and exactly what her position is. She must know that her beloved Dominic mourns her ‘suicide.’ Is that agreed?”

Lucius shrugged a broad shoulder. “What care I?” he said. He regarded his mother levelly. “My mother is a vicious one. ‘Tis no wonder that I have grown to be such a bad boy,” he said in a mocking tone and chuckled low in his throat. Then his tone became menacing, and his bronzed face tautened. “Out from my sight,” he snarled.

His voice sliced through Lydia like a cold blade, and she turned and quickly left the small chamber. Lucius drained his goblet, and wiping his firm lips with the back of his lean hand, he smiled a narrow, cunning, triumphant smile.

“Gird your loins, Uncle,” he said, the derisive sneer contorting his handsome face. “My battle is won.”

The frenzy of activity that had accompanied Sir Francis’s arrival and his stay at Ravenshead had died almost immediately at his and Dominic’s departure. The Raven was to sail south to the harbors of northern France. Dominic would take an overland route into Italy to find and bring back to English shores the little Italian, Frederigo Giambelli and would not return until at least July. His departure began, for the residents of Ravenshead a long, lazy time of relaxation and for Maurette, at least-loneliness. With her babe snuggled safely inside her, she spent many hours in her chamber with Ben.

Together Ben and Maurette would while away quiet afternoons, playing at backgammon and cards, and indulging in their favorite pastime. Ben was rarely without a dog-eared tome, and Maurette had encouraged Kitty to join them for she had become a prolific reader. The three sat often in companionable silence, each immersed in his or her favorite book.

One afternoon, Maurette was astonished to find Lydia knocking on her door, seeking admittance to the quiet company. The woman stepped almost shyly into the chamber, and Maurette invited her to sit with them. The big woman seemed grateful for the company, and it was not long before she was joining them frequently in Maurette’s chamber. Ben was not particularly pleased with these visits for Lydia was almost unrelentingly down-hearted. He glanced up from his book to listen to the conversation that was ensuing one afternoon. Pushing his spectacles down on his narrow nose, he regarded Lydia with a mixture of mistrust and annoyance.

“There is no guarantee that he will even return,” she was saying with an almost idle sadness. “He is traveling in ungentle environs, dear Maurette.” As Ben watched in disgust, Lydia wiped at an errant tear. She continued her gloomy discourse. “These are troubled times, and I fear for him. Anything could happen, and ‘twould be months before we even knew of it.” Ben noted the deep well of sadness in Maurette’s bright eyes.

“Do you not think you exaggerate, Lydia?” he said in exasperation. “You come here daily and prophesy disaster where none exists.”

“I am sorry, Ben,” Lydia responded mournfully. “‘Tis that I seek Maurette’s company for solace. And yours too,” she said with a smile of despair. “I hope my presence does not offend you.”

Maurette moved instantly to Lydia’s side. “Of course it does not, Lydia. We are happy that; you come here for comfort. ‘Tis only,” Maurette added in a small voice, …. well, I wish you would not talk of such melancholy possibilities. Dominic has assured me that no harm will come to him He has his own men at his side, and Sir Francis has sent an armed legion to aid them if trouble should arise. He shall be well protected.”

Lydia looked fondly into Maurette’s earnest face. “I wish I had your courage, dear child. If only I were as strong as you and had your faith.” She wiped at another tear and pushed back a tendril of hair.

“But you have your own faith, Lydia,” Maurette said gently “Pray to your G-d to bring our Dominic safely home.”

Lydia bowed her head. “I do,” she said in a childlike voice. “But I am still afraid.”

Ben set down his book on the table before him with a disgruntled thump. He stood and gathered his shawl around his shoulders, glaring down at Lydia.

“We are all concerned for your brother’s safety, Lydia. We do not need this exposition of our darkest fears each day to remind us that Dominic faces dangers. I would suggest that you go and pray, or something, and leave us in peace.”

Maurette looked up in astonishment. “0h, Ben,” she said softly, “how can you be so cold? Lydia has come to us for help, and you speak to her thus.” She regarded Lydia kindly. “Forgive Ben,” she said gently, “‘Tis his dripping nose that causes him to grumble so.” She a soft smile. “We all know that you are much with dark thoughts, Lydia. We, too, are frightened. perhaps, Ben is right in one thing. Perhaps your prayer would soften G-d’s heart toward this journey that our beloved Dominic has embarked upon. Pray that He looks down with favor upon your brother’s mission. Pray that gentle weather and kind companions follow him in his: labors.”

“I shall do that, dear, kind Maurette,” said Lydia gratefully. She rose heavily and moved to leave the chamber. She turned before exiting and eyed Ben with narrowed gaze. “I often become disconsolate at times like these, when there are no men about for protection. I shall not again trouble you with these awful musings.”

Ben rolled his eyes toward his own, uncertain deity as Lydia left the room. “Forgive me, Maurette, the woman unravels me.” He patted his reddened nose with a linen cloth. “Perhaps you are correct in that ’tis my dripping nose that sets me to behaving boorishly.”

Maurette shook her head with resignation. “You must needs ply a bit of patience, Ben,” she said kindly. “Perhaps Lydia is awash with fears.”

Ben eyed the doorway through with Lydia had just passed. “‘Twould be a kindness on her part if she were less the doting sister,” he said flatly. Then he faced toward Maurette. Her eyes had softened with unshed tears. “Maurette,” he stated gently, “Dominic will come back to us.”

“Of course he will,” Maurette murmured remotely.

“He will,” Kitty returned staunchly. Maurette’s two friends eyed her worriedly, then looked toward each other. They agreed silently that either one or both of them could happily have drawn and quartered the grim-spirited Lydia Hamilton.

Maurette heard the low snap of the fire and opened her Eyes. The rosy shadows of the night had turned to cool blues and grays in the predawn mist that lighted her chamber. She had not slept well and felt a tingling weariness overcome her. Images of Dominic had floated behind her closed eyelids and had kept her wakeful and restless throughout the long night. She shivered beneath her bed covers and attempted once again to fall asleep. Phantoms became the fabric of her sleep. Wafting forms shadowed her twilight dreams. The whisper of her chamber door roused her only slightly, and she nestled deeper into a consuming, timeless, soundless slumber.

A bronzed figure loomed before her, at the end of her bed. The glinting whiteness of strong teeth bared in a wide grin roused her, and she languidly propped herself up, shedding her covers to move toward the tall form. “Oh, Dominic.” Her whispered breath was a soft, contented sigh as she melted into the spectral tenderness of his embrace cradling her sleep-softened body in his strong arms. Maurette felt the illusory vapors of languorous passion on her throat as her head fell back. “Never leave me again,” she murmured as the phantom urgency of his lips roused her from somnolence. She entwined her arms around his neck and allowed herself to be overwhelmed by his consuming hunger. He laid her back upon the thick folds of the bed, and she felt the hardness of his muscled length beside her. Half in dreams she luxuriated in the silken pleasure of his hands upon her flesh. A half-born thought niggled at her as his lips moved to her bared shoulder. Her eyes opened, and she gazed sleepily down upon his abundant curls.

“Dominic?” she whispered. “Is it you?” The big head came up, and Maurette gasped in horror as she gazed into passion-silvered sea green eyes.

“Lucius!” she cried, as his lips came down to silence her savagely. She gasped and moaned, writhing beneath his terrible strength. “Please,” she cried in a breathless voice as he lifted his lips from hers at last.

“Do not cry out, Maurette,” he rasped.

“You cannot do this, Lucius,” she whispered desperately. “Dominic will kill you.”

Lucius allowed a small smile to cross his lips. “‘Twould be well worth the gamble, sweet Maurette,” he said huskily. His head came down, and his ravaging lips took hers once more in a brutal kiss. She pushed at his ravening power, but he held her to him. His tongue breached her mouth, and she moaned in an agony of helpless torment. She twisted away from his devouring lust but he took her face in his big hands and, hovering just above her, he growled, “Do not fight me, Maurette. I will have my way.”

“You will have nothing if you are discovered,” a harsh voice grated in the shadows behind them. Lucius’s head came around. His mother stood in the fire-lit darkness. “You shall have time enough for that,” she intoned sharply. “We must proceed with haste.”

Lucius lifted himself and advanced on Lydia. “I warn you, Mother, do not interfere in my business,” he ground through clenched teeth.

“I do not interfere,” she whispered, matching his tone, “I merely point out that ’tis nearly dawn.”

Maurette’s eyes widened in horror as the two people faced her. She felt trapped in their silver-green gazes and clutched the bed covers to her breast.

“‘Tis a dangerous enough piece of baggage to be carrying through the castle at any time. We must have her secured by dawn.”

“You are right, of course,” Lucius said, his breathing becoming even. A calculating smile crossed his lips. “As you say, Mother, there is time enough.”

“What do you intend to do with me?” Maurette asked in a breathless whisper.

Lydia moved toward the bed and flicked the drape aside. “You are about to receive exactly what you deserve,” she snarled.

“You felt affection for me, Lucius,” Maurette breathed wildly. “Will you allow her to kill me?”

Lucius laughed softly. “Kill you?” he murmured silkily.

“If you kill me, you shall be murdering Dominic’s babe,” she blurted out. Her delicate fingertips came up to cover her mouth.

Lydia’s eyes became snakelike. “This could work for us, she intoned.

“‘Twill not work for you,” Maurette stated defiantly, “for Dominic does not know. No one does,” she said, instantly recalling Ben’s knowledge of her condition.

“Not even your bastard tiring girl?” Lydia inquired harshly.

“Kitty does not know,” Maurette said fiercely.

“Calm yourself, Maurette,” said Lucius tranquilly. “‘Tis not our intention to kill you, in any event.”

Maurette was instantly filled with relief, but as quickly regained her horror as Lydia smiled a snakelike smile and reached out to grab Maurette’s arm and drag her from the bed. “Let us get to the business at hand,” Lydia said sharply.

“Wh-what business?” Maurette said haltingly.

“The business of your death!” The older woman shook Maurette furiously.

“But you said-”

“There is no need for such harsh treatment of the lady,” Lucius interjected mildly. He turned to Maurette and drew her from Lydia’s clutches. “First you must write a note, sweet Maurette.”

“A note?” she said in bewilderment.

“A suicide note,” he added coolly.

A flood of horrifying understanding filled Maurette’s soul. She realized what they had planned for her. It would be made to seem that she had killed herself in despair over Dominic’s departure. That was the reason for Lydia’s dark aspect in her chamber these past weeks. It was to be assumed that Maurette should have become despondent at the older woman’s despondent musings. There were two witnesses to relate what may have caused Maurette’s deep despair. And now the news of her pregnancy that she had inadvertently revealed could be used as well. Ben could support that circumstance. Lydia confirmed Maurette’s conclusions.

“You are to write that you have become despondent over your condition,” she grated. “You shall say that you could not be sure of what would happen to you at the end of your contracted year with Dominic and that, in his absence, you became certain that there was no other choice for you but to end your life.”

“Dominic will not believe it,” stated Maurette with a certainty she did not feel. “He knows I love him and that even if I would consider ending my own life, I would never harm a babe of his.”

“He knows’ nothing of the sort,” Lydia ground out.

“And you will not be here to reassure him of such lofty emotions.”

Lucius chuckled low in his throat. “Lovers are notoriously insecure, Maurette,” he said softly. “We shall count on Dominic’s guilt at leaving you at such a time. We shall count on his guilt over his reticence to wed you. He shall be forced to no other conclusion than that he has driven you to this course of action.”

“You forget the power of love,” Maurette corrected them both. Her heart filled with a defiant certainty that flashed in the depths of her lavender eyes. “Dominic loves me, and he will search out the truth of this terrible plot. And when he discovers the truth, you will both find yourselves facing the horror of his wrath.”

Lucius placed his hands on Maurette’s slender shoulders. His head fell back as he ran his fingertips over her flesh, and he smiled lazily. “Ah, sweet Maurette, how innocent you are. Dominic has not found out the truth concerning the suicide of his own father. For two years he has lived with that untruth. What causes you to imagine that he would believe the lie of his own sire’s suicide and not yours?”

“Dominic’s father is alive?” Maurette breathed.

Lucius nodded. “He is. But for my mother’s infirmity of purpose, the old man would be dead. She could not bring herself to complete the act, nor would she allow me to.” He glanced over at Lydia and noted the arch of her silver brow. “And so the fellow languishes in a prison. Now Lydia must indulge my infirmity of purpose where it concerns you. A quid pro quo. We shall stage your suicide but, you shall live.”

“I should rather die than be enslaved.” Maurette’s eyes sparked defiantly.

Lucius drew her to his hard length and held her in a gentle but unyielding embrace. He laughed softly. “But that would be such a waste,” he said seductively. “My G-d’s blood, get to it, Lucius,” snarled Lydia.

Lucius held Maurette away from him. He gazed down at her, and she felt her skin crawl at the glazed hunger she saw in his eyes. “My mother slavers for your blood, sweet Maurette, while I slaver for other things.” He laughed again “Do as we tell you and ’twill go easier on you.” He led Maurette to her writing table where Lydia lit a candle. “Write, Maurette,” said Lucius, seating her.

Her mind whirled. She must use the exact correct words so that Dominic would see the letter for the false document that it was. Writing under the watchful eyes of her captors, she chose her words carefully.

Dominic, my heart,
I leave you now because I feel not the truth of
your love. There is a babe that grows within me, and
it will be better dead than fatherless upon its birth
In my uncertainty over your love and our future, I
could see no other course of action.

Good-bye, Maurette

If there was any truth to the union of their spirits that she and Dominic had discovered at Nonsuch, he would see the falseness of those words. She prayed that Lucius was not correct in his observation about the insecurity of lovers and that Dominic would realize that she had not been insecure about their future. She had told him that she no longer needed the promise of a marriage. She had explained to him that all she needed was the truth of his love for her. Would he remember it? Would he know the trust she felt in his love? In his despair would he remember the profound depth of that trust? Maurette folded the missive and placed her seal upon it.

“And now, to the rest,” said Lydia menacingly as she took the letter from Maurette’s hand.

Lucius turned Maurette to him. “Oh, sweet Maurette,” he said in a gently despairing tone. “How I do detest this part.”

Holding one of her arms in his big hand, he swung back with his other hand and, with an almost caressing blow, connected delicately with her jaw. Instantly a flash of white hot pain exploded in her head, and Maurette fell back into Lucius’s muscled arms.

He looked down on her as he lifted her fragile form. “Ah, no,” he said, his sand-colored brow arching, “death will not claim this one for a very long time.” As her head fell back over his forearm, he brushed a gentle kiss over the tender flesh of her arched throat. “Not for a very long time,” he avowed softly.

Maurette felt awareness creep over her. There was a dank odor of wet rotted earth and a terrible unrelenting cold. She sensed rather than saw another presence. Her eyes opened slowly to find an oddly hunched caped and hooded figure near her. She tried to raise her head, but a sharp pain curtailed her movement. Far away a small fire glowed, and in its dim light, she strained to see into the interior of the black hood. A leather hand reached out to smooth away errant tendrils of hair from her face. Maurette closed her eyes wearily.

“Wh-where am I?” she rasped through, parched lips. The hooded figure did not answer her, but offered water. The coldness of the tin cup pressed against her lips was bitter and metallic tasting. Maurette winced as the water went down her dry throat painfully After one small sip, the cup was withdrawn. Maurette breathed heavily and tried to orient herself. She was lying on a pallet, and the soft earthen floor beneath her bed felt damp.

She opened her eyes once more and peered into the orange shadows made by the low fire. Turning her head gingerly this time, she could see the grim specters of the dancing flames on a stone wall dripping with moisture. The odd, black-garbed figure had moved from her line of vision. A door scraped. A postern clanked. For what seemed an eternity she lay there alone.

She must have slept, for her next impression was of the cloaked figure approaching her with the tin cup. She accepted the water once again. This time, its consumption did not pain her though she groaned audibly when she raised her head to drink. There was a dull ache in her jaw, but the cooling water soothed her mouth and throat.

“Drink slowly,” said the vaguely familiar voice. She did so, and when her thirst was finally sated, she lay back exhausted. “Keep your eyes closed,” the voice instructed. Maurette did so and noted behind her eyelids the sudden flair of a lighted torch. “Open your eyes slowly,” rasped her attendant. Maurette very slowly opened her eyes to see that above her was a low stone and earthen ceiling. The chamber was larger than she had expected, and she realized that her pallet was in a darkened niche. “Can you sit ‘up?” asked the voice.

“I … I don’t know,” she said. She pushed herself up haltingly with the aid of a strong arm. Maurette gazed around the chamber, and her eyes took in some low tables on which candles guttered, several stools, and a dark figure huddled by the fire. Her head came around, and she looked in puzzlement at the hooded presence that seemed to await her reaction. Was it kneeling? It was as small as a child. Maurette squinted into the hood.

“Who are you,” she said, “and who is that huddled by the fire?” The glint of bright eyes shone through the darkness, and as the little figure drew off the hooded cape, Maurette recognized Rodrigo, the dwarf. “Oh,” Maurette breathed. “What are you doing ,here, Rod?”

The small man smiled a broad-toothed grin. “I might ask the same of you, my lady,” he said, showing a courtly leg.

“And who is that?” Maurette inquired, pointing to the figure by the fire. Rodrigo’s face fell, and an expression of profound sadness was in his eyes. “What has happened, Rod?” Maurette’s voice was tremulous.

“0h, my lady,” the small man sighed. “‘Tis hard to tell you.”

“But you must,” urged Maurette. “I seem to be in some sort of dungeon. And that person,” she said, glancing at the silent figure near the fire. “Is he a prisoner?”

Rodrigo nodded sadly. “We are all prisoners,” he said gently.

Maurette took his powerful shoulders in her small hands. “You must tell me what this is about, Rod,” she entreated.

“Yes,” he stated, and tucking his legs behind him he sat near her on the earthen floor. “That man,” he said hesitantly, “is … Terrence Warbrooke.”

“Dominic’s father?” Maurette gasped the words, barely able to find her breath.

“Yes,” said Rodrigo. “He has been here now for two years. The ‘Lady Hamilton,’,, Rod spat out the designation, “and her son put him here, and now they have deemed it necessary for you to join him in his lonely captivity.”

“Why have they done this horrible thing, Rod?”

“That unholy couple has caused much horror in the name of their holy cause,” he said sharply “Their latest horror, my lady, is your own imprisonment.”

“I cannot credit this,” she said, shaking her head. “You must explain it to me, if you can.”

The two heard the clank of a postern gate and then the chafe of the heavy door on the earthen floor. Maurette stiffened, and Rodrigo rose, drawing his cloak around him, scuttled to the old man by the fire.

“I see that you are finally awakened,” said a silky voice from behind Maurette. Her head came around to find Lucius standing in the low doorway. “I had not thought to knock you senseless, sweet Maurette,” he said through a small smile. “My intent was only to stun you.” His eyes hooded as he shut the heavy wooden door and advanced to her. He lowered himself, bending his knees, and looked into her eyes. “How is our lovely captive, Rod?” he said languidly.

“She has taken water, sir,” said the dwarf.

“Very good,” said Lucius with a cold smile. “She shall be feeling herself in no time.”

“‘Twould be better for her if she were drugged,” said the small man in a grumbling whisper.

“What say you, Rod?” inquired Lucius lazily.

“Nothing, sir.”

“I thought not,” Lucius said, never taking his eyes from his prisoner. “I would imagine you are greatly confused. As per my mother’s instructions, you shall be kept aware of exactly what is happening to you, and,” he added with a reptilian smile, “to those you care for.” Folding his arms across his knee, he began as though he were telling a story.

“Kit discovered your note and ran with it to Dr Termain. The two of them wailed a great deal and scurrying about in search of you. ‘Twas that skinny simper; Jonathan, who discovered a shoe of yours in the crenelation of a parapet. Your shawl was also found near there. A searching party was sent down to the shoals, but, alas, your body was not found. “Twas washed out to sea, they have determined. My mother is naturally blaming herself for your latest disconsolation. She has apologized in mewling tones for abetting your dark humor. My uncle will forgive her; of course, but the others are not so lenient. I fear poor old Lydia will needs live with their censure for some time. As she cares not for their approbation, however, methinks she will survive.”

Maurette’s chin shot up “I am so relieved,” she said, her voice dripping sarcasm.

Lucius smiled. “‘Tis good. This is how I want you, Maurette. I would not have you cowed and cringing. Now,” he said, standing and pacing about the low chamber, “your family must be informed of this tragedy.” He noted Maurette’s stiffening with a perceptible measure of satisfaction. “Yes,” he said with mock sadness, they shall be profoundly saddened by the news. By the time they receive it, of course, my uncle will have returned from his noble mission.” He gazed down into her eyes. “He shall rail and brawl about for a time, but then he, too, will realize his loss and descend into a deep depression. He will be overwhelmed with guilt. Perhaps he will even arrange his own suicide.”

Maurette’s eyes flashed lavender sparks. They were as bard as the amethysts she often wore at her throat, Lucius noted. “Do not count too heavily on such weakness in your uncle,” she said, her voice strong and clear. “Remember that you are fighting the power of great love.”

Lucius stopped his pacing and stood looking down on her. “That is why,” he said softly, “If he does not weaken so, we must convince my uncle that, before you took your own life, you were unfaithful to him.”

Maurette paled. “You would do such a thing?” she said in disbelief.

“Oh, yes,” Lucius returned confidently. “I would do that and more. Perhaps my uncle will even come to believe that the babe you carried was not his, but mine.”

Maurette put her delicate hand to her throat. “No,” she cried. “Even you would not defile a man’s dead issue.”

Lucius threw back his head and laughed. His hands were on his narrow hips, and his gloating countenance enraged Maurette. “You see, sweet Maurette, even you are using the language of your own death. Think how easy it will be to convince Dominic Warbrooke of such a circumstance.”

Maurette flew at him. She swung back her arms and lashed with the full force of her rage at the boastful countenance. “You are evil” she screamed, but before her blows could make contact, Lucius had grabbed her wrists. He pinned them behind her back and held the trembling woman to his broad chest. “Let me go,” she cried, glaring up into his green-silver gaze. Her eyes widened, and she realized that the horrible truth she had seen that day on the secluded beach had been no irrational image. Lucius embodied the evil she had sensed in the lusting insignia of the raven. She was mesmerized by those cruel reptilian eyes.

“My father died in service to our good Mary of Scotland; When your bastard queen murdered her, his life Was made naught I will do what I must to avenge both those lives,” he snarled. “The tyrant must die. And so must all who worship her.”

Drawing a deep breath of foul air, Maurette realized that Lucius’s hatred was in deadly earnest, and the tenor of that realization gripped her heart. His vengeance knew no bounds. The only thought that attended her now was that Dominic was in grave danger, for no one in this house had displayed more loyalty to Elizabeth than he. Maurette had to do whatever was necessary to save him.

“Lucius,” she said, her voice barely more than a whisper, “please unhand me.” He was still holding her against him, but his grip slackened at her soft words. >From the corner of her eye she saw Rodrigo shed his cloak and stiffen, and the glint of a dirk in his hand. “Please, Lucius,” she said. “If you free me, we can speak further on this. Let Rod make us comfortable by the fire,” she entreated. “Perhaps he will get us some tea. Please, Rod, is there tea?” she went on wildly.

She wanted no violence to ensue now. She had to plan her course to save Dominic’s life, and Rodrigo was necessary to that plan. If, in a struggle, Lucius managed to kill him, she would be left with no one but the old man to assist her. Maurette hated herself for thinking this way, but she absolved herself with the knowledge that she would risk anything, even her own defilement at Lucius’s evil hands, to save Dominic.

Very slowly he released his grip on her wrists, and at the same time she gratefully noted the disappearance of the glinting dagger. She took great calming breaths.

“As I told you once before, Lucius,” she said in a seductive voice, “I wish to know of your activities. I have never been politically minded, but I wish to be persuaded that yours is a just cause.”

She took his arm and led him to a stool by the fire. Rodrigo drew Out another stool, and then, eyeing Maurette, he pushed a great kettle over the glowing embers of the hearth. Lucius sat down, and Maurette moved to the other stool.

“Thank you, Rod,” she said with deep sincerity in her tone.

Rodrigo nodded Curtly as he set out cups on a low table nearby. The hiss of the kettle was the only other sound as Lucius began to speak.

“The gentle Mary was kept a prisoner in England for twenty years.” he said softly. “During that time great numbers of discontented subjects have plotted for a means of her escape. The gentry who form the ruling class are important to our cause, but, more important are the common folk who are accused of riots and mutinies against Elizabeth. Those people form the heart of our rebellion.” He looked at Maurette for a long moment, assessing the sincerity of her interest. He saw only an innocent animation in the clear lavender of her wide eyes, and so he continued.

“The rebellion is still strong. Our cause is still just. The keep at Ravenshead has for many years been a cloister for the agents of our rebellion. My grandfather,” he indicated, with a small wave of his bronzed hand, the huddled form, “presented a threat to the continuance of our activities. We had no choice, Lydia and I, but to eliminate him.”

“And what of me, Lucius?” Maurette asked gently. “Why must I be … eliminated?”

He smiled obliquely. “We do not precisely wish to eliminate you, Maurette. But you do see that Dominic must be subdued. If we are to continue our work, we cannot have him prowling these environs. He is in our way; he is a potential threat to our cause.”

Maurette nodded solemnly. “And you believe that my so-called death will lead his attentions from your activities.”

“Lydia and I believe that you are the only thing that keeps him here at Ravenshead. He desired to make a home for you. If you are dead, ’tis likely that Dominic Warbrooke will sail away forever. If he does not…”

Maurette could not push down the fear that rose like bile in her throat. Hastily she turned from Lucius. “I too believe that Dominic will leave here at the news of my… death,” she said.

Lucius laughed. “Pray that he does, sweet Maurette, for I have much to repay my uncle. His own death will not be a pretty one.”

Maurette lifted her gaze slowly to his. “You will allow Dominic to leave here if he wishes to, will you not?”

His face darkened. “I will do what I deem necessary for our cause.”

Innocence sheathing her desperation, Maurette went on. “But if he leaves you, you need not fear him, Lucius.”

“I fear him not at all,” Lucius said, his teeth bared. “Lord Warbrooke will be the instrument of his own fate. It matters little to me the path he chooses. And when he is gone, Lydia and I will turn our operation over to those who would enable the cause of Elizabeth’s downfall.”

“And what of Rod and your grandfather? Will you allow them to leave as well?”

Lucius glanced at the huddled form of his grandfather and then at Rodrigo and finally back to Maurette. “I cannot say,” he intoned after a pause. “They are not under my protection. ‘Tis Lydia who keeps them alive.”

Maurette sighed. “‘Twas my hope that we could all count on your generosity, Lucius.”

Lucius’s eyes took on a cold glint. “That was your hope?” he said icily. “Think again, Maurette, if you think to engage me against Lydia.” He stood, grasping her arm and pulling her up with him. “‘Tis your good fortune that I did not allow my mother to kill you when she wanted to do so. You are, nevertheless, in no position to save others.” He shoved her back down onto the stool, and then with a hard look at the dwarf he turned and exited the cell.

Maurette breathed a long breath. “What shall we do, Rod?” she said hopelessly. “How can we fight the evil in his soul?”

Rodrigo moved to her side. “The saddest part of all,” he said softly gazing after Lucius, “is that this ’cause, he speaks of is no more. Mary’s death was greeted In Scotland and France with nothing more than indifference. The rebellion has been over for two years, and now the keep shelters only a few criminals and despicable people who seek out the largesse of its deluded master. Neither Lucius nor Lydia will admit this. Lucius continues to transport these malefactors out to sea through the inlet. Once away from Ravenshead, they find refuge on Flemish ships and think no more of England. He continues to call them the heart of the rebellion, but there is, in truth, no rebellion. The Spanish, however, form a very real threat. If Lucius and Lydia intend to offer Ravenshead to them-”

Maurette was listening intently to Rodrigo when suddenly something that he had said sparked her memory. “Wait, Rod,” she said, Interrupting him. “Did you speak of the inlet?”

“Yes. There is an inlet to the sea near the northern edge of the estate-”

Maurette once again Interrupted the little man. “I know of that inlet,” she said breathlessly. “I saw it the first day that I met Lucius. Do you know its mysteries, Rod?”

“I know it better than most men,” said Rodrigo dourly. “I was the one who marked the channel for Lucius Hamilton several years ago.”

“Then that is our freedom,” she said excitedly. “You must sail Dominic’s father through the inlet. I shall stay here and attempt to divert Lucius and Lydia’s attention from your absence-” she stopped suddenly as she noted Rodrigo shaking his head sadly. “What is it, Rod?” she asked.

“Do you not imagine I would have done such a thing by now, if I could have? Lord Warbrooke and I have been here for two years, my lady. In that time I have planned a dozen- means of escape, but I have never brought them to fruition, for you see, dear child, though I have the run of the castle, I am as much a prisoner here as either Warbrooke or you.” At Maurette’s look of bewilderment he smiled sadly. “They have In their possession something that I hold dearer than my own life. Lydia and Lucius Hamilton hold my daughter hostage.”

“Your daughter?” Maurette breathed. Rodrigo nodded. “But where is she?”

“In your own midst,” he said. “My daughter is your tiring woman, Kitty.” Tears came into his eyes, and he turned away, swiping at them. When he turned back, his eyes were bright with hatred and anger. Those animals” he growled, “have for most of her young life kept her in their good graces as long as I do their bidding. They know I will not cross their path as long as my child is in their power. The one time I did attempt to appeal to the younger Lord Warbrooke-when I attempted to reveal the loathsome plot against his father-I was tortured and nearly killed. Lydia came to me during that time and told me that Kitty would suffer unimagined torture if I persisted in the matter. Needless to say, I capitulated.” His voice was now barely audible. “Once I was completely in her power, Lydia very generously forgave me,” he said bitterly. “I live here under the auspices of her good grace-so everyone thinks.”

“Does Kit know of your relationship?”

Rodrigo shook his head. Sadly, her mother died very soon after she was born. I would not have her live beneath the stigma of having a dwarf for a father and put her in the care of Terrence Warbrooke. When Lydia and Lucius began their crusade, they used her as leverage against me. I was forced, because of their threats against Kitty, to do their unholy bidding in the name of their unholy cause. “That is why I marked the channel for Lucius. I had little choice.”

“And yet, when Lucius threatened me before, you would defended me. I saw the glint of your dirk,” said Maurette.

“For the moment,” Rodrigo said flatly, “I was enraged to see him treat you so. I cannot say honestly that, had the moment not passed, I would have finally defended you.” He turned away. “There is too much at stake; I cannot afford to become enraged.” He turned once more to face Maurette, and again his eyes were glazed with tears. “I hope that you understand. Kitty is ,my life; she is all that keeps me going in this merciless world.”

“I do understand, Rod,” said Maurette gently. “Kit told me that she was a bastard, you know.”

“She is not. Her mother and I were married,” Rodrigo stated with pride. “‘Tis what they have told her,” he spat, “to keep her at bay.”

“In a well-positioned dam’s good graces,”‘ Maurette intoned. Rod looked at her. “You said that to me one night in my chamber, Rod. The well-positioned dam you spoke of was Lydia. Oh, had I only known you were talking the truth. You were always talking in riddles.” She turned on the stool to face him directly. “You were trying to tell me of your predicament.”

He smiled a small, self-deprecating smile and nodded. “I was, my dear, but without any real hope of your understanding.” As Maurette placed a small hand on his broad chest, he looked into her eyes that were limpid with sorrow. “How could someone so gentle recognize such evil?”

“But if I had only known, I could have brought the two of you together.” At the thought of Kitty, Maurette consumed with pain. She lowered her head into hands. “How grieved the child must be over my disappearance, Rod.”

The man put his muscled arm round her slender shoulders. For the first time since she had been taken, Maurette realized the desperation of her situation. Not only was she in a horrible captivity but, if Lucius carried out his threat, she would be made constantly aware of the agony of those who loved her. Rod put his arms around her quavering body and rocked her as she sobbed out her lament. He hummed a simple lullaby, as though he cradled a babe. Maurette’s head came up, and her eyes shimmered with tears.

“That was Kit’s song for Geoff,” she said in a tremulous voice. “Your Kitty sang that the last night we were all together, Rod. Somewhere, in her soul, she remembers you.” She saw Rodrigo’s eyes fill with pain, and she embraced him. For a long time the two clung to each other in the damp, decaying chamber.

Maurette drew away and wiped at her eyes and finally attempted to compose herself. “We must do something, Rod,” she said.

The man turned away and moved to the huddled figure of Terrence Warbrooke. “What can we do?” he answered, placing his hand on the old man’s shoulder. Maurette moved toward them and peered down at the older man’s face.

“What afflicts him, Rod?” she asked.

“He is drugged, Maurette. They come in here with a supply of laundanum from time to time. They leave it for me to administer as I see fit. I give him as little as I possibly can, but still it affects him thus. I would leave the old fellow be, but I dare not disobey them for fear of what they would do to Kitty”

Maurette gazed into the vacant, staring eyes and moved her hand in front of his face.

“Yes,” said Maurette, pacing away from the two men. “And now, with me gone, we must be even more careful.” She rubbed her hands together. “But there are two of us, Rod. Surely that is something to be used to our advantage.” She continued to rub her hands together, and then idly she began to turn the small platinum band on her finger. Suddenly, she looked down and realized what she was doing. “This could he the answer, Rod,” she said excitedly drawing the ring from her finger, she held it aloft. “This could he our salvation.”

Rod peered at the small band. “What is it?”

“‘Tis a ring my grandmother gave to me. With it she gave her vow that if I ever sent it to her, she would come to me. I remember she said-” Maurette paused, trying to recall Lady Violet’s exact words. ” ‘No matter what the circumstances or how impossible your situation, you are to send it to me, and I shall come to you.’ “She moved to Rod and knelt before him. “Do you not see, Rod? All we have to do is get this to my grandmother and she will come here to Ravenshead and seek out the truth of the evil plot.”

The small man shook his head and allowed a small smile to cross his lips. “But how shall we get it to her?” he said, kindly.

“Oh, Rod,” Maurette said in vexation, “letters leave Ravenshead every day. How are they gotten out?”

Rodrigo reflected for a moment. “They are taken overland and then, I would imagine, shipped by boat to their destination. But we could not simply drop your ring in the Ravenshead mail. One of the Hamiltons would surely intercept it.” He placed a gentle hand on her shoulder. “Do you not see how impossible our situation is?” he said.

“‘Tis not impossible,” she said, standing and pacing the floor of the chamber. “There must be a way.” She stopped suddenly and turned to Rodrigo. “The impossible channel!” she said, excitement In her voice. He quirked an eyebrow in puzzlement. “The inlet, Rod. You said there was a boat.”

The man nodded. “There is a cave, and when the tide is high, the boat can be launched directly from the beach. ‘Tis a one-man job if the elements are cooperative.”

“Then we must do it. You said that you have the run of the castle. Now that there are two of us, your absences will he less noticeable. I shall make whatever excuses need to be made,” she said.

Rodrigo could not help but be captivated by the woman’s buoyant optimism. Her spirit of hope rejuvenated him. He drew stools to a low table, and here they sat to make their plans.

“If the weather is good,” he said, “It should not take more than a day-two at the most-to get to the estate’s- southern side and then back.”

“Once you have reached there, you should have no trouble getting my ring onto a boat. I shall send with it a message, and my grandmother will come to us.”

Rodrigo shook his head. “I cannot risk being caught; with a message, Maurette,” he said kindly. “I will make the short voyage, for I could somehow explain that. I could even explain,” he said softly “why I wear a platinum band on my smallest finger, but,” he paused significantly, “I would never explain a message from you to your grandmother. This I could not risk, for they would not hesitate to murder my little Katherine.”

Maurette smiled. “Katherine,” she breathed. “Of course, her name would be Katherine. No, Rod, you are right. We cannot risk such a thing.” They pondered the dilemma for a long time. Finally Maurette made a decision. “I must do it, Rod,” she said with certainty in her voice.

Rodrigo laughed softly. ‘Tis courageous of you, Maurette, but very foolish. How could your absence be explained? No,” he said, “I am the one. For one thing, you could never navigate the channel.”

Maurette reluctantly agreed.

“What if,” Rodrigo began uncertainly, “I could find the missive that has been sent to your family? It could not have been sent out before today. They may delay the news even longer in the hope that you might be ‘found.'”

Maurette rose. There was triumph in her voice. “That is the answer, Rod. You will find that message and slip the ring into it.”

“How simple you make it sound,” he chuckled. “Well,” he said, rising also, “if there is any truth to charms and the magical powers of talismans such as this little ring, our efforts will be met with success. If. not,” he added with a rueful smile, “I will have gotten a day’s sail out of all this.” Maurette moved, to him, and in the dim firelight of the chamber, she knelt before him. Taking his hand in hers, she slipped the platinum band on his smallest finger. “G-d’s speed, dear Rod,” she said softly.

He patted her hair gently. “And to you, dear child, for you must face their wrath if I should fail.”

She looked into his eyes, which were soft and intelligent just like Kitty’s. “Neither of us will fail,” she said, and her faith and hopeful spirit filled Rodrigo’s heart.

ROMANTIC VENTURE

CHAPTER THIRTY-FIVE

In early summer, Lydia watched, fascinated, as the legation of men rode through the portcullis. The old gatekeeper was waving joyously as the horses passed him in a cloud of dust. The men hailed him in high good spirits, their mission having been completely successful. Giambelli, the Italian inventor of the weapon that would win their battle with Spanish, was safely tucked away in London. Dominic wheeled his horse as he approached the front entry to the castle. He looked around, surprised to find that Maurette was not there to greet him. Surely the messenger he had sent with the news of his arrival would have been there by now. In one powerful motion, he dismounted and ran up the steps. He stopped short, however, in the face of a most sedate welcome. Old Jonathan was there with Ben and Kitty. Their faces told him that something was seriously amiss.

“What is it?” he said, checking his enthusiasm. He looked into the great hall for Lydia, who had not appeared. “You had better speak,” said Dominic, still not allowing a terrible fear entrance into his conscious thought. “Has the west tower burned or the hounds run off?” he inquired with a smile. “What has happened that you all seem so loath to relate?” Geoffrey Frobisher moved in beside Dominic, and a look of puzzlement arched his thick brow.

. “Why is everyone so dour?” he said with a lightness that he suddenly did not feel. He spotted Kitty. “There’s my little muffin,” he said and moved to sweep her into his big arms. “Did you miss me?”

Suddenly Kitty began to cry. Sobs racked her small body. “She.. . she is. . .” The girl could not finish the statement and collapsed into Geoff’s embrace.

Dominic stiffened. “I would know what has transpired in my absence,” he said brusquely, his manner shielding his growing fear. Ben looked up over the steel rims of his spectacles. His eyes held profound pity, and as he moved to Dominic, the big man girded himself.

“She is gone,” said Ben, placing his hand on Dominic’s broad shoulder.

“Gone!” thundered Dominic.

“Dead,” said Ben quietly Dominic’s reaction startled even the stoic Jonathan, who prided himself on his imperturbability.

“No!” Dominic roared. “No, I do not believe it!” He took the little doctor by the front of his blouse and lifted him off the ground. “You are a toad-eating liar, Ben Tremain.” Geoffrey was behind Dominic in a flash, grabbing his arms to pull him off the doctor.

“She is not dead!” thundered the terrible raging voice as Ben was shaken by Dominic’s unrelenting hold. Jonathan tried to come between the two, but was thrust by the force of Dominic’s rage across the floor. Kitty ran to Ben and tried to pry him from the whipcord ferocity of Dominic’s attack.

“She is not dead!” he shouted over and over-until his voice became the bellow of a wounded animal.

In the raging horror of the moment, no one noticed the figure of Lydia on the turret stair at the north corner of the great chamber. She stood straight with her hands folded placidly before her. “She Is dead, Dominic,” she called out. “Maurette is dead.” Her voice resonated and echoed from the high ceiling. Dominic released his grip on Ben and put his hands over his ears.

“I will not hear it!” he thundered. “I will not hear it!” His great bulk staggered about the room, blindly knocking over tables and statuary. “Noooooo!” he bellowed like an enraged beast. As he advanced on Lydia, all girded themselves for an attack, but he simply stood before her and suddenly fell to the floor at her feet. Grasping at her knees, he fell against her and began to sob horribly. Lydia lowered a hand to his head.

“‘Tis true, Dominic,” she said softly. “Maurette is dead.” At her words, he slid to the ground and pulled himself into a tight knotted ball. Lydia knelt at his side. She rubbed her bony hand over his muscled back and shoulders. ” ‘Tis a truth that we have all been facing for weeks now.”

Ben regarded her with profound disdain, finding it difficult to credit Lydia’s seeming sympathy, but for the moment his real concern was Dominic. He straightened his hose and accepted his spectacles from a pale and shaken Jonathan. Geoffrey was holding Kitty in a comforting embrace, which she returned.

They all eyed the stricken Dominic. None of them had ever witnessed such pain in a man, and their hearts were gripped in an agony of compassion. They had shared much grief at the knowledge of Maurette’s death, but all their torment combined could not match the depth of misery that Dominic now endured. His agonized sobs clutched at their hearts; and they stood in silence watching his anguish.

Ben moved to Dominic’s side. He knelt near him and, regarding Lydia coldly, addressed his friend. “Let me help you, Dominic,” he said gently The bigger man allowing himself to be helped to his feet, and together they moved across the room to the grand staircase. His arm slung heavily over Ben’s narrow shoulders, Dominic climbed the steps to his chamber.

No one spoke. Jonathan wiped at his forehead and again straightened his livery before following Doctor Tremain and Lord Warbrooke up the stairs. Geoffrey and Kitty found solace in each other’s arms as they too left the room. Only Lydia remained.

She glanced about the chamber with an air of satisfied contempt. Soon she would have everything she had planned. She would correspond with the former Spanish ambassador. As soon as Dominic had left, which Lydia had no doubt that he would, now that Maurette was gone, she would inform Mendoza that he would be welcomed there and that Medina Sidonia could use the estate as a refuge from which to direct the attack of the invincible Armada on the English Navy.

At last, Lydia would see the overthrow of the arrogant little queen who had caused the death of the rightful heir to the throne, Mary Queen of Scots. She sighed a comfortable sigh. She must now go up to her chapel and pray that all would go well. She had no fears. After all, she reasoned, she had the power of good on her side.

Some time before, Rodrigo had returned safely from his short journey around the Ravenshead estate. He had secured the letter that had been sent to Maurette’s family, placed the ring inside, and put it back with the other, carefully censored mail out of Ravenshead.

Upon Rodrigo’s return, he had discovered that Maurette had been weaning the older Warbrooke from his drug-induced somambulance. Lydia and Lucius made cursory checks on the old man, but as neither of them were truly interested in him at this point, the task of fooling them was not a difficult one. Terrence had merely to look into the middle distance whenever one of them approached to satisfy their investigation.

Maurette’s billowing girth had been instrumental in warding off Lucius’s attentions. In the early weeks of her imprisonment, the very real fact of her consuming nausea had discouraged any advances he might have made toward her. Though he had been initially frustrated and had raged on many occasions, he now seemed content to look into her eyes and speak of the great love he bore her. His protestations, however, involved little more than long diatribes on what they would do together after her babe was born. Maurette successfully hid her disgust at the images and silently thanked her own private G-d that Lucius had never had his way with her.

Lydia had made brief visits to the dungeon to recount the depression of this or that household member over Maurette’s untimely demise. The older woman seemed to revel in the decline of the high spirits that Maurette had brought to Ravenshead. Everything, in Lydia’s eyes, was back to normal.

Terrence Warbrooke was now fully aware of his circumstances, for Maurette and Rodrigo had apprised the old man of all that had happened in the household. His silver head had bowed when he heard of Lydia’s treachery. His greatest sadness, however, was over what they were now doing to his son.

“‘Tis a man’s greatest sadness to lose the woman he loves,” he said one day, tears shimmering in his eyes. “I lost my dear Anna many years ago. And now my children are lost to me as well.”

“Your son will know you very soon,” said Maurette with certainty. “There is no doubt that we shall escape from this place. Rod has successfully planted my ring in the outgoing mail. My grandmother; Lady Violet, has by now received it, and at any moment, she will appear at Ravenshead to uncover this evil plot.”

Maurette’s faith in the future kept both men from giving in to hopelessness Terrence patted her bulging abdomen one day and smiled. “I pray ’tis true, my dear;” he said. All three of them laughed. In truth, Maurette’s size had taken much of the pressure off them.

As the weeks had passed, Lucius had visited her less and less. This had been a relief, particularly to Rodrigo, who still carried his dirk and had been much inclined to use it on several occasions. He would not see the gentle Maurette ravaged by the insane brute, Lucius, and yet, he still remained a fear for his daughter, Kitty.

All three were careful to maintain an appearance of desolation for the enjoyment of Lydia and Lucius, but in truth, they had abandoned themselves to hope. A buoyant atmosphere of tenacious optimism pervaded their days, and they existed in companionable vigilance in that dusky, decaying chamber.

One day after Lydia had left them, Maurette smiled. “She has arrived,” she breathed.

Rodrigo quirked an eyebrow at her. “What say you, child?” he asked.

“My Grandmama has come. I know it.” Her eyes were a sparkle with certainty.

“How could you know such a thing?” inquired Terrence, his own gray eyes taking on an expectant glitter.

Maurette explained that Lydia had been particularly cruel in her relating of Maurette’s family’s travail over her so-called death. “And how would she know,” Maurette added conspiratorially, “that my family had been particularly heart sore? She could have received a letter, of course, but her description of their pain seemed so real to me. I am certain that she has seen my grandmother. She spoke of the sadness in her eyes. Yes!” Maurette burst excitedly. “She could not know of my grandmother’s blue blue eyes, for Lydia has never met her.” The three danced around the chamber in an ecstasy for exultation. When they had composed themselves, Rodrigo smiled ruefully. “But,” he said, “we cannot be positive that this Lady Violet will be able to engineer our escape.”

Maurette’s chin lifted, and she regarded Rodrigo archingly, “You have apparently never met my grandmother, either,” she said. They all laughed once again and, for the first time, truly believed that their freedom was imminent.

Dominic’s storm of protest over Maurette’s demise had taken on a new tone after his first outbreak of rage. He sat in his chamber on the edge of his small bed for two days, neither sleeping nor eating. His only solace seeming to be the reading and rereading of his favorite poems by Master Marlowe. Kitty had attempted to bring him food but he had dismissed her from his sight with curt wave of his hand. An oath or two had passed his lips, and Geoffrey had protested Dominic’s treatment of Kitty, but he had merely stared his friend down. Even Ben could not penetrate Dominic’s hard shell.

It was with much trepidation, therefore, that on the third day of his self-imposed confinement, Lady Violet was ushered into his chamber. The small, elegant countess of Audley stood in the narrow doorway, regarding Dominic’s despairing posture with no small amount of disdain. “You must rouse yourself from this indulgence Dominic, and find Maurette.”

There had been no amenable preamble to her terse words, and Dominic raised his red-rimmed eyes to determine who addressed him thus. His steel-eye gaze became one of astonishment as he realized who the intruder was. “Lay Violet!” he gaped. “What are you doing here at Ravenshead?”

“My granddaughter sent for me,” she said pertly. “And I would suggest that you begin looking for her.”

Dominic lowered his big head. “She is dead, my lady,” he said with sorrow.

“She is no such thing,” Lady Violet snapped. “She is not dead and certainly not by her own hand.” Her small chin shot up, and Dominic raised his eyes to regard her with pity.

“‘Tis hard to accept such a thing,” he allowed.

“‘Tis not hard. ‘Tis impossible,” she stated archly. “By G-d’s blood, Dominic Warbrooke, do you believe that our Maurette would take such a cowardly course? If you know anything at all about the child, you know that she is not a coward.” She moved toward him and placed her hand beneath his chin. Raising his face, she caught him in a sapphire gaze.

“Maurette Harper would not take her own life, nor would she sacrifice the life of your babe. I perceive that you love her, young Raven. Let the power of that love guide you in this.” She drew her hand away, but her eyes still blazed. “You owe it to yourself and to Maurette and to your unborn babe to seek out the truth in this.” She turned from him and paced to the hearth. Glancing toward the doorway where Kitty and Jonathan, Geoffrey. and Ben were lurking, she abruptly called out, “This fire has died. See it is built up.” Jonathan bustled into the room and knelt before the hearth. “And you bring food, young woman. This man needs his strength.” Dominic began to speak, but Lady Violet waved away his interruption with delicate fingers. “And get him a shirt,” she said to Geoffrey and Ben who were frozen at the door.

The two men eyed the elderly little countess in bemusement. They wondered, with a frankness in their eyes that she found quite amusing, whether or not she was completely sane. Geoff shouldered his way into the room and drew a clean shirt from a chest.

“Will you put this on, Captain?” he said uncertainly.

“Not until he has had a sponging,” stated Lady Violet with a wrinkle of her delicate nose. “I shall return in one half-hour. Please have him fed and properly turned out by then.” As she left she noted with satisfaction that Dominic was being worked on by his two friends while Jonathan was feverishly attempting to light a fire with nervous fingers. Kitty returned in a short time with a tray of broth and cakes and attempted to spoon the heavy broth between Dominic’s unwilling lips.

“You must eat, sir,” she stated, “or I fear she shall be most dazzlingly angered. Oh, please, sir,” desperation edged her voice, “eat!”

Looking at the girl, he arched a brow and realized that his own authority had been usurped by that arrogant little countess and that he could either resign himself to his friend’s ministrations or bring the wrath of that lady down on their heads, to say nothing of his own. He allowed their ministrations but wondered stubbornly what Lady Violet thought she could accomplish with all of this. He was shaved and dressed and presentably turned out when Lady Violet returned on the dot of the half-hour.

“Now,” she said, eyeing the five curious and harried people, “I want a full accounting of all that has happened.” She sat attentively on the edge of a low stool, a small ornate cane that she had recently begun using propped before her. They all began to talk at once, and Lady Violet splayed a hand to stop the incomprehensible jumble of words. “One at a time, please,” she said kindly, indicating with her cane that Dominic should begin.

Lady Violet interrupted only when a question needed to be asked for her complete clarification. “Who gave you the note?” she asked Ben. Then to Kitty she said, “Why did this Lady Hamilton person say she was so concerned for Dominic’s safety?” And, “Where, exactly, was she supposed to have jumped from?”

When she was finally satisfied she had the story, to which all of them had made contributions and observations, Lady Violet stood. “Someone has done a fine job of gulling us all,” she stated., ” ‘Tis obvious to me that my granddaughter is very much alive. She has been taken-kidnapped-for some reason and hidden, I should surmise, somewhere in this very castle.”

The five people regarded the woman in amazement. They could not credit her conclusion, and yet, for Dominic’s four friends, the lady’s statement came as a welcome explanation. It was the first time any of them had seen any measure of hope in Dominic for three days. Ben shook his head in consternation. He prayed that Lady Violet was not raising false optimism.

“What makes you so sure, Lady Violet, that Maurette is alive?” he ventured.

“Because I know my granddaughter. And because of this,” she stated, holding out her hand, palm up, for their inspection. On its pale surface lay the small platinum band. “the day she left with you for Ravenshead, Dominic, I gave her this. I told her that she was to send it to me if ever I was needed and I would come to her. This ring arrived with the letter that told us of Maurette’s death. I noted that the seal on the letter had been broken and an attempt had been made to reseal it. “‘Twas my theory that the ring was inserted after the letter had been sent.” She looked down fondly on the little band.

“The child must have thought me dotty when she received this ring and my promise of assistance. She must have wondered what an old lady could possibly do in, desperate situation. Well,” she said, looking up and holding the others in her blazing sapphire gaze, “I shall tell you what an old lady can do. She can rouse five people to find the truth behind a nefarious plot. She call tell them to go down into the labyrinthian bowels of this old haunt and find her granddaughter I shall have no more of this indulgent whining you all seemed to have been engaged in. I shall have results, or I shall know the reason why. Start the search immediately. I shall do some digging of my own.” With a flash of sapphire and a buoyant wave of her white hand, she left the chamber.

The five people regarded each other in bemusement.

“What shall we do, Captain?” said Geoffrey.

“It seems,” said Dominic, rising elatedly from his bed, “that we shall find Maurette.”

Lydia sat in the withdrawing room, sipping at tea. She tucked a tendril of gray hair into her coif and regarded the lady across from her warily. “What exactly is your purpose in coming here, Lady Violet?”

The older woman smiled a sad, sweet old lady smile. “‘Tis such a difficult thing to accept,” she said in a small voice. “My granddaughter was, you see, such a vibrant young thing. I suppose,” she added, allowing a tear to spill onto her parchment white cheek, “I simply could not believe her death until I saw this place for myself. I know I am too old to be traipsing off on such a journey, and, in truth, ’twas unfair to drag my poor old servant, Edyth, from the comforts of London, but,” she said reflectively. “I could not go to my grave without viewing the place where my granddaughter spent her last days.” She sipped at her tea and regarded Lydia forlornly. “You understand, I pray.”

“Indeed,” Lydia replied, lifting her own cup to her lips. She was not entirely certain she could trust the countess’s motives.

“Were you close to Maurette?” asked Lady Violet sweetly.

“We were, in truth, very close after Dominic had left for Italy,” Lydia said levelly. “Did she write you of that circumstance?”

“Alas, no,” sighed the older woman. “Please tell me how you found each other.”

“We spent many long afternoons discussing Dominic’s mission. I suppose I was particularly frightened because, if anything happened to him, I would be left completely alone. After our father’s death two years ago-,”

“Your father’s death?” interjected Lady Violet.

“Yes,” said Lydia mildly, noting the sudden flash of interest in Lady Violet’s eyes. “He also took his own life.”

“Really,” said Lady Violet earnestly. “What an odd and unfortunate coincidence.”

“I had warned your granddaughter of Ravenshead’s isolation from the start. She did not immediately take to me, and that is probably the reason. I must have seemed the very voice of doom to such a vivacious girl, but I felt it my obligation to tell her of the loneliness and the solitude that attends a life here.” Lydia set down her cup with a click. “She did not believe me.”

“Maurette was never given to dark musings, Lady Hamilton. But she is-was-young. The young do not know, as we do, what such a life can do to one. It distorts one’s perception of reality. It can even make one bitter,” she said philosophically.

“Yes,” stated Lydia evenly. “For some it is not a good life. I have found it to be most amenable to my needs, however.”

“Mmmmm,” Lady Violet agreed vaguely. “You shall be most happy, I would imagine, when we have all left you to your peace. I suppose Dominic will not be staying on, now that Maurette is … gone?”

“Oh, I should think not,” said Lydia.

“I shall not be staying long myself,” said Lady Violet, setting down her cup. “‘Tis my intent to leave within the next few days.” She chuckled. “You may be certain that Edyth will balk at that. When my tiring woman reaches a place, she enjoys staying there for a time before she undertakes the journey back. Our progresses with Her Majesty become more difficult each year.”

“Her? Majesty?” inquired Lydia.

“Yes. We shall be leaving for Hampton Court to attend her when we leave here. Then we shall be on to Nonsuch for the hunting season, and then, heaven knows where. ‘Tis a tiring schedule Her Majesty keeps, but ’tis never boring.” Lady Violet laughed resignedly.

“You are friend to Queen Elizabeth?” Lydia asked stiffly.

“Oh, indeed. We have been so for years,” said the older woman comfortably. “That good lady has watched Maurette grow up. I should not wish to be the one to tell her of this present circumstance. She will be mightily upset. Would not surprise me at all if she were to send her ministers here to investigate this terrible event.” She caught Lydia’s gaze in her own. “They will find the child’s body, or the queen will know the reason why. ‘Tis a serious business when a person take his or her own life. And now you have had two suicides here. ‘Tis no small thing, Lady Hamilton.”

Lydia said nothing, but her eyes flared with what Lady Violet perceived to be a combination of rage and fear.

“If I were you,” said the countess flatly, “I would gird myself for such a visit.”

Lydia rose with a suddenness that sent tendrils of hair sliding down from her upswept coif. “I must see if Dominic will attend us. He would know of the possibility of such a thing.”

Lady Violet smiled a narrow smile as Lydia forged from the room. She looked up into the silver gaze of the ubiquitous raven.

“You, my friend,” she said, pointing at the ungentle looking thing, “are about to topple.”

ROMANTIC VENTURE

CHAPTER THRITY-SIX

Lady Violet stood serenely at the bottom of the turret Stair, her delicate hands elegantly fingering the head of her cane. She waited silently in a small niche in a dim passageway and, on hearing the scrape of many footsteps on the stone steps, raised her eyes to the heavens. ” ‘Tis their intention,” she murmured, “to arouse the entire household.” She held her fingertip to her lips as the group approached.

“Kitty said that you wanted us all to attend you here,” said Dominic.

“Please,” she said in an exasperated whisper. “we need not flaunt our presence.” She eyed them all. Following Dominic was Geoffrey and Ben and Jonathan and, of course, Lady Violet’s trusted accomplice, Kitty. “They have assembled in a chamber down that passageway,” said the old woman.

“Should I gather my men?” inquired Dominic.

“Nay, dear boy,” said Lady Violet. “They are but two. Surely, we six can handle that.”

“Can you be sure of that?” Geoffrey asked, a measure of desperation in his voice.

The countess nodded. “I saw the two of them enter. If there are more inside, we shall handle them,” she said, raising her cane. “In any event, there is no time for you to gather a force of arms, Dominic.”

Ben regarded her obliquely. “If I may be so bold, my Lady,” he said in a rasping whisper; “how can you be sure this is where they are keeping Maurette?”

“I simply gave Lydia a reason to really kill my granddaughter, and then I followed her,” she responded pertly.

“Poor old Lydia,” laughed Geoffrey. Then at Lady Violet’s admonishment, he whispered, “She never had a chance.” They all laughed, and Lady Violet waved them to silence.

When they heard the clank of a postern and the scrape of a door; they backed into their concealment. Dominic was elected by a flick of Lady Violet’s fingertips to look out into the dim passage. Peering into the dusky circle of light emanating from the chamber, Dominic saw two figures. With amazement, he realized that one was the billowing form of Maurette and that Lucius Hamilton followed her. His teeth bared at the sight, but seeing him stiffen, Lady Violet placed a hand on his shoulder to check his impulse.

“We cannot risk it yet, Dominic,” she whispered earnestly. “we do not know what we must contend with in the chamber.”

Reluctantly Dominic agreed. His wonder at seeing Maurette alive and beautifully ripe with his child tempered his rage at seeing her with his hated nephew. He held to the small concealment along with the others. At his command, after the two figures had disappeared down the passage, the group moved stealthily along the wall. The chamber door had been left ajar. Through its open slit, Dominic futilely peered inside.

“There are three of them,” he whispered to the others. “You shall take the one by the fire,” he said to Geoff. “Ben, you must handle the dwarf. Jonathan, you must aid Ben, and I will go where I am needed.”

“Rod is there?” inquired Kitty piteously. “I believed that dear little man to be our friend.”

Dominic’s mouth was a grim line. “No one can be counted upon, Kit,” he said not unkindly “Lady Violet, you and Kit must handle Lydia.” Lady Violet nodded and lofted her cane. “Has everyone a weapon?”

Geoffrey and Ben held up their swords. Jonathan raised an enormous bread trencher that he had purloined from the kitchen, and Kitty held two tall silver candle sticks. Dominic smiled fondly at his brave little band.

“We are ready,” he said. They all nodded solemnly, and at Dominic’s command they burst into the room.

Lydia reacted first with a shrill scream. She ran toward the doorway, her fingers clawed like angry talons. Lady Violet was ready with a backhanded blow of her cane to Lydia’s knees. The big woman toppled forward. Kitty ended the woman’s progress with a swing of a candlestick, and Lydia lay there unconscious.

Ben and Jonathan girded for battle with the sinuous little dwarf, but were bewildered to find Rodrigo smiling broadly. He ran toward the two men and, throwing down his dirk, grabbed their knees in a rapturous embrace. Jonathan looked wildly at Ben who was nearly toppled by the exuberant show of affection. Geoffrey and Dominic were facing the huddled figure in the dark corner by the fireplace. That man was simply sitting there, smiling up at the two of them.

Lady Violet moved into the room and indicated Rodrigo. “‘Twould appear this gentleman is a lover, not a fighter,” she said musically. “And this gentleman,” she said, moving to Terrence Warbrooke, “has little inclination for either, methinks, after his long confinement.” She offered her hand, and the old man stood and took it, brushing it with a courtly kiss. “He is gaining back one of those inclinations, however,” she said piquantly. Dominic, meet your father.”

Dominic moved to the man in awed reverence. “‘Tis you, father?” he asked softly “‘Tis rely you?”

The man nodded his silver bead. His gray eyes were a shimmer with unshed tears. “‘Tis me, Dominic,” he returned gently. Without further words, the two men embraced. The older man drew from the embrace first. “There is more to be done, Dominic. Your nephew has taken Maurette.”

“Where?” said Dominic, his teeth bared in rage.

“We cannot be sure. It was our intention, before you burst in, to overpower Lydia and find them.”

Rodrigo loosed his hold on Ben and Jonathan’s knees. “I believe that he has taken her to the north tower. He is not sane, my lord. I fear … ’twas their intention to throw her body down onto the shoals from the north tower. Somehow, they got the impression that the queen was about to, send ministers to investigate ‘this matter.”

Lady Violet smiled knowingly, but Rodrigo continued darkly. “I have the feeling that Lucius has other plans for our gentle Maurette.”

Lady Violet shut her eyes and swayed. She was caught in the arms of Terrence Warbrooke.

“You men go find them,” he commanded. This lady and I will stay here and guard Lydia. Jonathan and the young lady, Katherine, will stay here with us.” He led Lady Violet to a low stool.

“You know me, sir,” said Kit in awe.

The old man smiled at her and then winked in the direction of Rodrigo, who was just now picking up his dirk and about to follow the other men out the door. Rodrigo gave the girl a longing gaze, and then he moved, with the others, out into the passage.

“I know you, little Kit,” said Terrence Warbrooke. “You are in for a very pleasant surprise before this day is over. Now,” he stated commandingly, “see the tying of my daughter, both of you.”

Kitty and Jonathan did so, and Kitty tore at a part of her petticoat to use as a gag.

“Are you all right?’ Terrence said, patting at Lady Violet’s wrist. She gazed up at him, and a small smile crossed her lovely lips, “I have never been better,” she said in a musical voice.

The four men moved stealthily into the small chapel. There, they found a sight that sickened each man to the core of his soul. Maurette had been strung, arms outstretched, between two pillars at the altar end of the chamber. Her delicate wrists were tied with thick ropes. Her lavender eyes shot icy purple sparks. Even in the dim light of the candlelit chamber, Dominic could see her defiance, and he allowed himself a small smile. Above her billowing form and even in the face of this terrible menace, her little chin had lifted in defiance. Dominic shook his head in wonder at her courage. Lucius was standing over her. His green eyes were silvered with lust. He was unarmed.

“Now, Maurette,” he was saying silkily, “we shall see to these lacings. I shall uncover what my uncle has so jealously guarded all these months. He is a most ungenerous uncle. He is also a very stupid one. I should not have left you to serve a skinny queen. You are not skinny,” he laughed, placing a hand on Maurette’s bulbous abdomen. “To bad I did not take you before this so that I might have enjoyed the fullest measure of your ,beauty, but this shall be better than nothing.”

“You shall end with nothing in any event!” spat the brave little woman before him. “Dominic will kill you for this, Lucius Hamilton.”

His laugh became deep and full. “I told you before of the insecurity of lovers, sweet Maurette. He shall be made to believe that the babe you carry is mine and that we have been lovers all this time.”

“He will not believe it,” said Maurette with certainty.

“She is right, you know.” came a silken voice from the other end of the room. “I will not believe it.”

Lucius’s head came around. His eyes widened and then narrowed. “I am unarmed, Uncle,” he said insolently. “Will you kill me thus?”

“You deserve it,” shrieked Rod.

“Or will you have your lackeys do the deed?” Lucius continued, unperturbed.

Dominic took the sword that Ben was holding arid tossed it across the room. Lucius caught it by the handle.

“‘Tis still three against one.”

“Lay down your weapons,” Dominic said through clenched teeth. Geoffrey allowed his blade to clatter to the stone floor, and Rodrigo reluctantly laid his dirk over it. “Now,” said Dominic levelly, “The contest has become even.” Lucius threw back his head and laughed. He plucked at Maurette’s chin with a forefinger. “I shall be back momentarily, sweet Maurette,” Lucius said.

Maurette barely noted the gesture for her own eyes were on Dominic. His countenance softened briefly as he looked upon her, and they shared the knowledge that Lucius would never be back. Then he turned to face his nephew. His teeth were bared, and his whole body became a rigid weapon.

Lucius chuckled low in his throat. “‘Tis an odd thing about rage, Uncle,” he said conversationally, ‘it warps the judgment, and like spirits, as you once pointed out to me, it makes one lose control. You cannot win this day, for I shall take advantage of your loss.”

Unnoted, Ben ran down the aisle behind the two adversaries and untied Maurette. They all watched in horrified fascination as the two big men faced each other.

There was no longer any hint of insolence in Lucius’s green eyes, for he knew that this battle was to the death. Dominic knew it too. The bitter enemies would give each no quarter. Their sword arms flexed sinuously. The ends of their blades scraped menacingly and slid fluidly apart as they separated. In the dusky candlelight their faces gleamed with the horrible animosity that seethed between them. Hatred snapped and snarled in the heavy air.

Lucius was the first to thrust. He lunged with malevolence, and Dominic repelled his blade powerfully. The contest had begun. Dominic’s riposte was vehemently parried. The retaliatory attack was aggressively repulsed. The naked steel of their blades froze above their heads for one glacial moment before Dominic allowed his body to be flanked by Lucius’s powerful thigh. The older man stepped back, and the other’s own weight propelled him down the aisle and out into the passage.

Dominic pursued him venomously, but Lucius was prepared for the charge. Scrambling to retrieve his footing, he met the onslaught with a repelling lunge. Dominic parried the thrust with savage strength, and Lucius was sent sprawling onto the turret stair. The younger man again regained his balance.

They exchanged escalades on the narrow stairway. Their swords clashed with the jagged stone of the turret well as the titanic contest blazed to the roof of the north tower. The echoes of battle rang off the stone battlements. Dominic’s steel blade swung in a wide backhanded arc and rapaciously wrenched the other man’s weapon from his hand. It clattered to the stones beneath his feet.

Instantly Lucius bent low, and from the top of his boot, produced a long-bladed dagger. The wicked blade glistened evilly in the white sun. Its keen-edge carne up once and whistled past Dominic’s jaw. He eluded the upward thrust, but felt, as it lunged downward, its razor sharpness slice into his shoulder. He felt no pain though his flesh angrily spurted out his blood.

“To the end you mock the truth, Lucius Hamilton,” Dominic snarled. “To the end you remain a treasonous liar.” He wielded one mighty hate-filled blow, and the dagger clattered to the ground. To the astonishment of both men, it was accompanied by the lean, bronzed hand of Lucius Hamilton.’ Gore pumped from the end of his arm, and he looked down upon it with bewilderment. He glanced up at his adversary. Green eyes held gray ones.

” ‘Tis the punishment for traitors,” Lucius said in disbelief. Then he began to laugh. His maniacal mirth echoed from the towers of the Castle Ravenshead. He threw back his head, and with a jubilant bellow, vaulted up onto the parapet. “Martyrdom,” he shouted. “Death to the tyrant queen!” With arms outstretched, his right disgorging his lifeblood, he leaped, his wild laughter fading and vanishing as he fell to the shoals below.

Dominic had seen much horror in his life. He had seen men die, but what he had just witnessed sickened him. Gazing down at Lucius’s oozing hand, he bent and picked it up. With malevolent force, he hurled it over the edge of the parapet.

There was no sound, only the soughing of the wind through the high towers. Dominic’s big shoulders slumped, and silver tears filled his eyes.

ROMANTIC VENTURE

CHAPTER THIRTY-SEVEN

Lydia sat on a low bench with her back against the stone wall in the withdrawing room. Her eyes glittered with enmity, as Dominic paced the room. The crackling fire was the only sound.

The silence was broken as Terrence Warbrooke entered the room on the arm of Lady Violet. His walk was tentative as though he carried a heavy burden. With Lady Violet’s aid, he lowered himself into the chair nearest the fire.

“I have not been warm in two years,” he said softly.

Lady Violet tucked a shawl round his shoulders. “I shall leave you, Terrence,” she said gently. “This is between you and your children.” She turned, and with a glance at the family crest and another at Lydia, she left the chamber.

“This was my favorite room,” said Terrence Warbrooke into the silence that followed. “‘Tis good to be back.” He looked toward Lydia. No emotion showed in either countenance.

“I suppose you wish me to say something in my own defense,” she stated after several moments.

“Would there was a defense,” Dominic burst out.

“I shall not beg you for mercy,” Lydia continued as though she had not heard her brother. “I tell you this. I never hated you, Father. Nor did I hate you, Dominic,” she said matter-of-factly. “What I did was for my cause. Mary Stuart was the rightful heir to the throne of England, surely you both can see that. She was, in truth, the Only true claimant. As the great-granddaughter of Henry VII, hers was the right of succession to the English throne.”

“And what of our good Queen Elizabeth?” asked Dominic. “What of her claim to the right of succession?”

Lydia snorted. “She is the bastard daughter of the French whore, Anne Boleyn-nothing more.”

“Elizabeth is daughter to Henry VIII,” stated Terrence Warbrooke.

“And Mary is dead,” Dominic added gently, “and her cause with her.”

Lydia’s eyes hardened. She looked directly at her brother. Her keen silver gaze was as venomous as that of the ugly bird of prey on the armorial plate over the hearth. “Think again, Dominic Warbrooke, if you think to diminish the splendor that was and is Mary, Queen of Scots.”

Dominic lowered his eyes. His sister’s voice continued without emotion.

“You are both fools. You have allowed yourselves to be deceived by your little queen. Had Mary Stuart been successful in her attempt to dethrone Elizabeth, the Spanish would have no need to attack us. As it stands, gentlemen, your queen’s flaunting of the law has led to her imminent downfall. You cannot stop the Spanish. That is Mary’s triumph.” Her smile was contemptuous.

“What led you to this treacherous thinking, Lydia?” asked Terrence Warbrooke, pain clear in his tone.

“I see you as the traitor, Father,” she said archly, “and you, Dominic. When I married lord Hamilton and accompanied him to Scotland to live, I realized with his guidance that, by accepting Elizabeth as queen, you were supporting her bastardy. When I returned to Ravenshead, after my husband had given his life for the Catholic cause, I continued to fight for the same cause. I allowed the keep here to be used as concealment for Mary supporters who came to our shores.” She shrugged one large shoulder. “Naturally, finances were needed to support this effort.”

“And so you raised the rents of our unsuspecting tenants,” Dominic said flatly.

Lydia smiled barbarously. “Yes. The fools never knew of their contribution to the Mary cause.”

“Poor little Alys Grimes contributed her life, did she not, Lydia?” said Dominic.

“She discovered our secret. She threatened to go to you, Father, and tell you of our clandestine activities. So we killed her. Actually, it was I who killed her,” Lydia said with a certain chilling pride. “But that increased the danger of your discovering our secret, Father. Had ‘poor little Alys Grimes’ been more circumspect, she could have transmitted her knowledge of our activities to you. You also had to be removed, and so Lucius and I staged your ‘suicide.’ As I had set up the idea of your mental infirmity, it came as little surprise to anyone that you had ended your own life.”

“Then Rod’s story was true,” said Dominic, horrified to remember the blood-chilling torture the man had endured.

Lydia laughed. “It was, brother. The little man was tortured and nearly killed for telling the truth. But,” she added, her eyes narrowed, “it did accomplish one thing. He came to realize that he could not fight me. I took his Precious daughter into my power, and he knew another word from him would end in her death as well as his own. With Kitty as… enticement, we forced the dwarf to mark the channel at the northern edge of the estate to allow ships to enter and dispatch defenders of the Catholic cause. Now that cove will be used by the Spanish reconnaissance. I have invited them to use this bastion of support for Elizabeth as a base for their attack on England’s northern shores.” She laughed derisively. “‘Tis the ultimate irony, do you not agree, gentlemen?”

Dominic and his father stared at Lydia in awed disbelief. Her obsession had poisoned her beyond their comprehension.

” You have given Ravenshead to the Spanish?” Dominic asked, incredulously.

Lydia’s face became a mask of hatred. “I have,” she said. “They will be here before the month is out.” Both men stiffened as Lydia drew a dagger from the folds of cloth of her dress. She stood and pointed the glinting dirk at her own bosom. “Did you imagine that I would allow the two of you to decide my fate? Mary Stuart died a martyr. My son died a martyr. So, too, shall I die a martyr.”

“Put down the knife, Lydia,” said Dominic as he moved to cross to her.

“Stay where you are, Dominic,” she grated. “I shall not put the dagger down, but you could easily be victim to its razor sting.”

Dominic stood fast, never taking his eyes from his sister.

“Did you think I would allow myself to be imprisoned?”

“You allowed my imprisonment, Lydia,” stated their father.

“Yes,” Lydia countered, “even my conscience would not allow your death at my hand.”

“There were times,” said Terrence sadly, “when death would have been preferable to that loathsome cell.”

“‘Tis why I had you drugged, Father,” Lydia said as though she were explaining something to a child. “‘Tis why I had Henry and Gwynn procure the laudanum that kept you incognizant of your surroundings. I believed ‘twould be the kinder thing to do.”

“And Maurette?” inquired Dominic. “Why did you not drug her as well?” He moved imperceptibly toward his sister.

“Because I hated her,” stated Lydia flatly. “She thought to seize my power here. Her influence in this house grew daily, and I came to realize that you might consider completing your precontract with the chit. If that came to pass, she would be chatelaine of Ravenshead, and I would become powerless.

“I did not want to hurt you, Dominic, but the moment you came here, you began to interfere. I wanted the estate for myself, to become a base for Spanish ships, they need it, to guard the defeated English shores. Spanish occupancy would have ensured the overthrown Of Elizabeth and the power of the papacy forever.”

Dominic, moving slowly, had reached his sister’s side. “Do not attempt to take my knife,” she said, realizing his proximity and thus his intent. She dodged past him and scuttled across the room, the knife held firmly to her breast.

Dominic held out his hand, palm up. “Give me the weapon, Lydia,” he said, his tone commanding. “Father and I will not allow you to kill yourself.”

“Will you not?” said Lydia. Her voice was icy calm.

“In the name of all that we have shared, Lydia, continued Dominic, “in the name of our sibling love, give the knife to me.”

Terrence stood, disregarding the effort that it took him to do so. “According to your religion, Lydia, you will suffer for all eternity if you do this thing.”

“So I shall,” said Lydia, and she smiled as, very neatly, she plunged the sharp dirk into her chest.

Dominic was at her side instantly and held her body as it descended to the floor. She had uttered her last words.

Father and son watched the life trickle from her, and neither man could stop the tears that flowed for the misspent life of Lydia Warbrooke Hamilton.

Very late, after the household had retired, Dominic escorted Maurette to her chamber. He left her there but assured her that he would return later.

He moved slowly along the darkened gallery, down the stairs to the great hall, and into the withdrawing chamber. One torch lit the room. The light of its dull flame danced on the glistening surface of the Ravenshead coat of arms. The ravening power that it projected had guided Dominic for most of his life, but now, in the aftermath of the deaths of Lydia and her son, the features of the once proud image took on a different aspect. Shimmering before him in the golden shadows, it became the embodiment of all the evil present in his house. The silver-eyed visage leered down at him in spectral defiance. In the wavering torchlight it flashed a lust-filled challenge.

Suddenly, Dominic reached up over the mantel stone and ripped the thing from the wall. His teeth bared, he dashed the plate to the floor, and falling to his knees, he twisted it into an unrecognizable mass – pounding and pulverizing it until he was exhausted.

“There will always be a Ravenshead,” he rasped harshly, “But it shall exist without you” For long moments, he remained kneeling, his head bowed, in the center of the chamber. His broad chest expanded and contracted as he breathed deeply of the newly cleansed air.

At last he raised himself. When the Spanish came, he would be forced to abandon this place, but he would ensure an English victory, and one day he would return. The house of Warbrooke would forever call Ravenshead home.

ROMANTIC VENTURE

CHAPTER THIRTY-EIGHT

It was now late July, and the rosy chamber had never looked more inviting to Maurette than it did that night. Kitty had bathed and scented Maurette’s ungainly figure, and Dominic was now assuring her that her form, though bulging, was more beautiful than it had ever been. They lay together in the thick folds of her velvet bed covers. All was secure, as the inlet was now being guarded by the Raven and its vigorous crew. Dominic and Maurette were as contented as any couple had ever been. They reveled in the warmth of each other’s embrace and fell into the peaceful slumber of lovers reunited.

Very late that night the household was aroused by the ringing of alarms. The men of the house gathered in the great hall in various stages of undress to discover a legation from Sir Francis Drake The Spanish had been sighted off the coast of Plymouth at three o’clock in the morning of the previous week. The Vice Admiral had sent a relay of messengers to the far-flung corners of the country and even now, ships and men were gathering along the English coastline to meet the cumbersome Armada. On July twenty-first, the Spanish treasure ship, the San Salvador, had been damaged by an explosion, and a ~ big galleon, the Rosario, had collided with another Spanish ship in the close crescent formation that Medina Sidonia had ordered.

A number of other Spanish ships had been damaged, and the admiral’s flagship, the Santa Ana; had been demasted and wrecked on the French coast. Howard, Sheffield, and Hawkins, among others, had been knighted for their patriotic service to queen and country, and now the Spanish waited at Calais for reinforcements. The battle was by no means over, nor, in fact, had it really begun. Still a formidable instrument, the Spanish fleet, with the addition of more warships and ammunition, would invade the shores of England within a very short time.

Dominic galvanized his crew. With the threat of Spanish ships invading the harbor of Ravenshead, he could not allow Maurette to remain there, and so, within hours, the entire household had also been mobilized. It was decided that Maurette should go to the palace of Placentia at Greenwich. Lady Violet and Edyth would attend her along with Kitty, Ben, and Jonathan. Rodrigo and Geoffrey would join Dominic on the Raven to join the action along the coast.

Kitty had requested that Ruth, the little laundress, be allowed to accompany them. The granting of that request began a flood of entreaties from servants wanting to join the progress from Ravenshead. Terrence Warbrooke was enlisted to take a list of all those who wished to make the journey. He bemoaned the fact that the number had reached twenty before he was through, but Dominic assured him that there would be room for all, including the lad who was at that moment standing near Terrence and looking forlornly up into his kindly eyes.

“Yes,” said the old man, “you, too, shall be allowed to come, Dick.”

The little boy smiled in satisfaction. “I should think so, my lord,” he said righteously. “Else who would clean the chicken filth from my lady’s morning eggs.” The otherwise somber company laughed at the boy’s certainty of his importance.

“We could not do without you,” Terrence laughed kindly as he took the boy’s slender shoulders in a fond embrace. He raised his eyes then to find Gwynn and Henry regarding him balefully Pushing Dick away gently, Terrence rose. “You should. know that Lydia has confessed that ’twas the two of you who supplied her with the drug that kept me enslaved to her and her son for two years.

Gwynn wound her apron around her hand. “We did not know to whom she administered the drug, sir,” she whined.

“Did you not?” said Terrence coldly.

“No my lord,” Henry responded with lowered eyes. “We had no idea ’twas you.”

“What did you imagine she needed it for?” Terrence asked.

“We fig’red,” said Gwynn piteously, “’twas none of our business.”

Terrence threw back his head and laughed. Then his silver eyes became serious, and he regarded the couple with disgust. “You wished it to be none of your business,” he said with steel in his voice. “You had to have realized her evil intent, and yet you did nothing. I rotted for two years in a decaying dungeon, and ’twas your loathsome aid that made it possible. Get from my sight.” The couple scuttled away.

Lady Violet had entered the room and had watched the dismissal. She moved slowly to Terrence and placed a delicate hand on his heaving shoulder.

“You did the right thing, Terrence,” she said kindly. “They do not deserve your mercy, for though they were but instruments in Lydia’s evil plot, they are far from innocent.”

Terrence sat heavily, “I have mercy for no one who had any hand in this. They shall all stay here to face either a Spanish invasion or, escaping that, the invasion of Her Majesty’s agents, who will execute their own justice If any of them do manage to make their way from Ravenshead before either happens, they will forever bear the guilt of what they have done and be vulnerable to whatever punishment the wide world holds for them.”

He looked up into Lady Violet’s warm eyes and felt his anger soften in their sapphire depths. “‘Tis with no small sense of irony that I consider the fact that if ’twere not for all this intrigue, I may never have met you, dear Violet.”

With a soft smile, Lady Violet patted his shoulder and informed him gently that it was time to leave. Arm in arm, the elderly couple left the chamber to begin their journey.

The Raven, carrying its precious cargo of human souls, rocked and groaned over the choppy waters of the North Sea. The unsettled winds and summer storms had been the worst that anyone could remember. Rodrigo had folded his stocky legs beneath him on the deck and was now sitting with Kitty’s head contentedly in his lap. He recounted his arrival at Ravenshead many years ago with Terrence Warbrooke as the captain of the ship, the Gloriana. Geoff sat next to them on the gently pitching deck and listened, in fascination, to the little man’s tales of Kitty’s mother, the stalwart galley wench, with whom he had fallen in love and eventually married.

“She was a darling woman,” Rodrigo was saying with pride. “She was much smatter than any of the men, but she was smart enough not to let them know it.” He chuckled. “I remember her once bargaining with a vituperative Spanish sailor. She wanted oranges for the crew and promised him the wonders of her body, if he would part with a crate of the fruit. He parted with the fruit, all right, but he never saw my Kate again.

Next morn, when every man had a juicy orange upon his plate, she merely answered and said that all their prayers must have been answered.” He laughed at the memory. “And she loved me,” he said with a kind of awe. “Me, the most unsightly of men, and she, the most beautiful of women.”

“Unsightly, Father?” Kitty said. “I think not.” They regarded each other warmly, “She was the lucky one, this good mother of mine.” “She died at sea, child, shortly after you were born. She is buried in the ocean that she loved.” He smiled down on Kitty. “She would have been so proud.”

Geoffrey regarded the two people who had so recently found each other and discovered himself wiping a fond tear from his ruddy cheek.

Edyth sat with Maurette enfolded comfortably in her plump arms on a low bench. They, too, had come up on deck to enjoy the breezy night. Terrence Warbrooke and Lady Violet sat across from them on another beach.

“You would have liked Dominic’s mother, Violet,” Terrence Warbrooke was saying.

Lady violet smiled warmly. “And you would have liked Maurette’s grandfather.” The four people laughed.

“In truth I met the valiant Audley once. And you are right,” Terrence said, his silver eyes sparkling, “I did like him very much.” Dominic and Ben came onto the scene and wondered at the easy laughter. “We are being very nostalgic, Dominic,” said Terrence. “I suppose ’tis that we all feel most companionable this night, for ’tis our last night together aboard the Raven before we reach Greenwich.”

“And to think,” said Lady violet with music in her voice, “all this might never have happened had I not mentioned publicly a certain challenge made privately by a certain reckless young woman to a certain hotheaded young nobleman.”

Maurette’s eyes widened, and she lifted her head from Edyth’s shoulder. “‘Twould almost seem from your tone, Granmama, that your announcement of my challenge to Dominic that night was less than innocent.”

Lady Violet cocked her head. A mischievous twinkle was in her eyes. “Does it seem so, dear child? But how can you imagine that I would deliberately manipulate you?” She looked up at Dominic in feigned distress. “Do you believe, Dominic, that I would do what my granddaughter accuses me of?”

Dominic hid a smile. He recalled Lady Violet’s demeanor on the fateful night of his duel with Maurette. “‘Twould not be seemly of me to challenge your honest motivations, dear Countess,” he said dryly, “but-in a word-yes.” They all laughed. “Let me add, however, that in all my life, I have never been more sweetly manipulated.” He smiled warmly at Maurette, who regarded him through lowered lashes with a smile of her own. “Who would have imagined,” Dominic added softly, “that I would have won the love of the wondrously spirited, the dauntlessly courageous, and the gloriously beautiful Maurette?”

“And I,” said Maurette with bubbling laughter, “the love of the dazzling Silver Raven.”

Lady Violet shrugged a delicate shoulder. “Did neither of you anticipate that your duel would end in a draw?” she asked sweetly. “I did,” she added with a certain adorable smugness.

For Terrence Warbrooke, they all recounted the story of Maurette and Dominic’s first meeting. With much laughter and embellishment, the tale went on late into the night. Pitchers of ale and wine were brought up from the galley, and Roger and Jase and the other crew members joined the members of the Ravenshead household on deck. Dominic felt a warmth flow through him. On the eve of the great battle with the Spanish, he was very grateful to have those he loved near.

Toward the end of the evening, Dominic looked to Maurette and then to Lady violet. “I wonder if I might ask a favor of you ladies.” They nodded. “I know my father would be most valuable company at the palace, for he is proving to be a fascinating conversationalist and even more importantly a fascinated listener, but I would know if I may borrow him for the coming battle? I should enjoy having my father at my side.”

The two men regarded each other warmly.

“I should he most honored, my son,” said Terrence quietly.

“There will be no more talk of ‘gentleman seaman ‘in this family,” added Dominic.

“I should be honored to release your father for such a noble purpose, Dominic,” said Lady Violet. “Just be sure,” she added archly, that you bring each other back safely.”. They were all aware of the danger that lay ahead.

Maurette regarded Dominic and his father solemnly. “Do protect each other,” she said softly.

Terrence Warbrooke took her hands in his. “We have all lived through much, dearest Maurette, and we still have each other. So it will be when this battle is ended.” They smiled into each other’s eyes.

With the resilience of human spirit that they had all recently shown, the mood on board the Raven lightened once again. All accepted the rest of the happy night on own merits and did not again give in to dark thoughts.

The next day, Maurette and her entourage disembarked at Greenwich. Dominic, Geoffrey and Rodrigo accompanied them overland to the palace at Placentia. Lady Violet would make a trip up the Thames to visit with Queen Elizabeth at Richmond, but she promised to be back in time for Maurette’s confinement. They both realized, as did Dominic, that he might not be back in time for the birth of their child.

Dominic took Maurette’s small face into his hands. “Even if I must sail through the waters of hell,” he said softly, “I shall try to make it back. Please wait for me.”

Maurette smiled. ” ‘Tis not up to me, my love,” she said softly. “Speak to your child.”

Dominic looked down and placed a strong bronzed hand on her billowing abdomen. “If you have any respect for your father at all,” he said to the growing bulge, “you will wait until he returns.” The couple laughed.

And after a long embrace, Dominic was gone.

ROMANTIC VENTURE

CHAPTER THIRTY-NINE

Sir Francis Drake paced the throne room floor. Having come to Richmond with bad news, he did not know how to acquaint his queen with it. Fortunately, Lady Violet, Dowager Countess of Audley, was in attendance. That good woman seemed to have a calming effect on Her Majesty. Drake ran his fingers through his head of thick curls and turned finally to face the two women.

“I am hesitant to tell you that the picture is more than bleak, Your Majesty.” Drake cleared his throat. Forever the gallant, he balked at burdening women with unhappy news. ” ‘Twill grieve Your Majesty and Lady Violet to hear these unholy tidings, I fear.”

Elizabeth eyed her friend, and they allowed each other a small smile. “Violet and I have known much grief, Francis. Now, if you intend on grieving us further, please do it apace. Unpleasant news is so much easier borne quickly.”

“I would not hurt Your Majesty for the world,” said the nobleman.

“Speak,” said the queen sharply.

“Your men are at terrible odds with their leaders at present,” Drake blurted. He hurried on. “The men do not understand the waiting, methinks. They are men of action and are unmanned at idleness. No happier day dawns than the one on which we inform them of a raid or some exercise against the enemy. They guard your shores with zeal, Your Majesty, but their zeal wanes with inactivity If my calculations are correct, and I believe them to be, the Spanish will not attack for some weeks, and I fear a massive exodus of worthy soldiers in that time. In truth, I do not call them up on it. I cannot fight that which is unnamed. I only feel the stirrings. I keep them busy on their sleek but idle galleons, and do what I can to encourage their continued enthusiasm, but the fact that they are beginning to feel a great lassitude must be faced. The disgrace of their abandonment of our cause, should it come, will not lie in any lack of patriotism but in the men’s desire to act rather than to react.”

Elizabeth regarded Drake through hooded eyes. “Can we not speed the Spanish in their exertions?”

Drake moved closer. “I have pillaged and plundered every village from here to Cadiz, as you know, and exploited every trick I can imagine to spur their action against us. ‘Tis, in truth, a scandal that they have waited this long. What can they be thinking, I ask myself. What will force them to action? I would not have suffered the insults they have endured; I would have struck at the first affront or at least the second or the third. What must I do to rouse them from their dalliance at Calais. Can their reinforcements have been delayed this long?” Sir Francis hung his head and placed his hands upon his hips. “I am lost,” he said resignedly.

“Those Spanish must be every bit as frustrated as yourself, my dear Drake,” said the queen evenly. “‘Tis the disgrace of his reign that Philip fumfers in this way. In truth, I knew before you spoke what you would say to me. I have had similar dispatches from Frobisher and Lords Gilbert and Grenville. They tell me what they have also told you, I reason.

“We cannot allow this scandalous state of affairs to force our hand, however. You know, as do we all, that ‘twould be suicide for us to act the aggressor. This is, in truth, what Philip has been praying for. Our defeat would raise him to lofty heights as a monarch, and he is willing to sacrifice his poor scurvy-ridden men to attain his goal.” She paused and looked away into a middle distance. Her disdain of Philip’s methods was clear. “Give me leave to ponder this, Francis,” she said softly. “Before you leave on the morrow, I shall have an answer for you.”

On Drake’s leaving, a heavy silence fell between Lady Violet and her friend. Elizabeth’s jeweled hand hung heavily over the arm of her great throne. She sighed audibly.

“You know what you must do,” said the countess.

“Has the answer escaped me, Violet?” said the queen.

“It has not, Elizabeth.”

“I must go to them?”

“Indeed you must,” stated Lady Violet. “And I shall go with you.”

Elizabeth regarded her friend tiredly. “Bless you, dearest Violet,” she said.

“I shall summon your ladies for you,” said Lady Violet, moving to the doors. “You have made the right decision, you know,” she added over her shoulder.

Elizabeth rose and moved to her friend. Embracing her fondly she said, “I have, have I not?” The two women smiled softly into each other’s eyes as they parted briefly to prepare for their trip to the coast.

The day dawned quickly, the sun a yellow-gold ball in the white sky, as Elizabeth’s train prepared to move. The queen sat proudly astride her imposing bay and smiled back at her entourage. Lady Violet sat in the first coach and beamed up at Elizabeth as she passed in review of her train. At least part of her elation, Violet knew, was based on the fact that she would be seeing her beloved Leicester again. That man, though by now very ill, was still the favorite of his queen. He waited, as did the others, for her inspiration.

By the time they reached Tilbury, rain was pouring from the sky. Elizabeth rode to a high tor overlooking the sea and sat her horse in grand dismissal of the downpour. All who watched the great monarch that day agreed that this was her finest hour.

“I am come amongst you,” she said in a clear, proud voice, “at this time, not for my recreation and disport, but being resolved, in the midst and heat of the battle, to live or die. Amongst you all, and to lay down for my God, for my kingdom, and for my people, my honor and my blood, even in the dust. I know I have the body of a weak and feeble woman, but I have the heart and stomach of a King-and of a King of England, too!” A great cheer rose at the end of her speech. She moved among the men, and regarding them keenly, she measured the effect of her words.

Later in her tent with Lady Violet and Robert Dudley, Elizabeth smilingly removed her gloves and, in the dim lamp-lit enclosure, asked her two most trusted friends what their reactions were to her speech. Both approved with hearty congratulations the text and the spirit with which it had been delivered. The men were clearly a force to be reckoned with once again. If the Spanish had thought to weaken the English forces with delay, their tactic had been a mistaken effort.

Both women expressed their fear for Dudley’s health in the damp and cruel sea air, but he would not hear of leaving with them on their return journey to Richmond Palace.

“The Spanish will attack any day now, and I intend to meet them,” he stated comfortably.

When Elizabeth and Violet were snugly ensconced in their coach for the journey home, Elizabeth finally spoke of the fact that she would not see her Robin again.

“The Spanish will attack soon, Violet; Robin is correct. And that pride-filled oaf will be there to meet them, as he says. But … ’twill be his last battle.” Her amber eyes shone in the pale sunlight that leaked in to the carriage. “I shall miss him, the old bastard.”

Dodman Point was awash in red sunlight of evening. Against the flaring ball the black castles of the first Spanish galleons appeared. All that could be heard in the anticipatory silence was the splash of water against the hulls of the gargantuan vessels. The silhouettes loomed dark against the setting sun and slowly vanished in the impending darkness. Throughout the night, the sidling ships waited.

As the castles reappeared in the predawn gloom of the summer morning, the men went into action. Orders were shouted and guns groaned into position. The first shot echoed through the paling darkness. Through the day, the noise of guns and the inhuman cries of the wounded men combined with the raw abrasive grind of the clashing hulls of the huge vessels.

Dominic Warbrooke rode the deck of the Raven. He felt his ship shudder sickeningly as a fiery orb flew through the air and landed amidship. Men scurried and lost their footing as they fought the flames that threatened to engulf their floating world. Dominic beat at the blazing timbers, his face aglow in the flamelight. Lambent tatters of wood and cloth flew up into the smoke blackened sky only to plunge into the seething waters and boil rampantly against the mighty hulls of the embattled galleons. Around him the hulking Spanish ships cracked and splintered, then crashed violently into the swollen abyss of the fiery water only to shudder in violent thrusting flames and sink, scaring and hissing, into the sea.

Time and place lost all reality for the men. They acted purely on instinct, positioning heavy guns and loading and reloading the blackened cylinders. The long day of battle saw isolated volleys of gunfire replaced by a rampaging roar of guns. There was only the volcanic eruptions of the pulverized ships. There was only the raging, flashing, thunderous blaze of the cannon. There was only the sights and sounds and smells of destruction and death.

That night in the dark the huge warship, the Thomas, groaned stealthily into place beside the raven. Its hulking size overshadowed the sleeker ship in the silvered moonlit night. A plank was slid between the two vessels. It had been decided that Dominic, Geoffrey, and Rodrigo would man the Thomas while Terrence stayed to captain the Raven. The three dark shapes moved across the expanse of wood that loomed over the sinuous murk of the swelling, battle-scarred water. The plank between the two ships was then removed, and it slithered ominously into the water. In silence the three men began their work.

Dominic poured pitch while Geoffrey and Rodrigo filled the blackened guns with double shot. The sails were raised and set The Thomas, with Dominic at the helm, was maneuvered into place in tight formation with the other huge vessels, eight in all, that would form the core of the English defense.

Just before midnight, the pitch was ignited. The full-masted ships began their assault. The Spanish saw the huge, blazing balls of fire bearing down on them and attempted to intercept the onslaught with a protective screen of pinnaces and ships’ boats. The smaller boats had been equipped with grapnels, and their crews had been instructed to engage the hulking hell-burners and tow them into the shores where they would explode harmlessly. Their efforts, in the face of the brazen English assault, were hopelessly undermined. The English warships, including the Raven, had formed close behind the fire ships and kept the pinnaces within shot.

Dominic and Geoffrey and Rodrigo prepared to dive from the stern of the flaming ship. They placed their hands together in a clasp of camaraderie and patted each other’s backs in the hope that they all would be safely aboard the Raven within the next few moments. In the blazing heat, their smoke-charred faces shone with the sweat of their labors. Separating finally and with a last, silent indication of friendship, the three dove over the tailpiece of the flaming warship into the raging surf of the black waters far below.

ROMANTIC VENTURE

CHAPTER FORTY

Within minutes the Raven’s boat picked up Dominic, Rodrigo and Geoffrey. The boat skimmed through the dark writhing waters to their ship.

Behind them, the pinnace crews had managed to deflect two of the fire ships, but then the preloaded guns began to go off. The men on the pinnaces screamed in terror as the white-hot shot splattered them. Then the screen of pinnaces pulled back, and the hell-burners went straight for the anchorage. The shouts and inhuman cries of horror from the Spaniards told the departing crew of the Thomas that the terrible weapon had done its work well.

The huge galleons scattered over a wide area, as the fire ships collided with several of their numbers. The ensuing explosions sent blazing detachments of flesh and blood and bone screaming into the night sky. Ships were run aground, and shrieks of men could be heard far into the night. The silvered moon, blackened by the clouds of pitch smoke and seething human flesh, cast its sallow light, as the horror waned, on the “invincible” Armada running before the wind. As the dawn impressed itself on the horror-filled night, the fleet had been dispersed, never again to regain its close crescent formation.

Against a southerly wind, the Spanish fleet was driven north away from the shore and away from its allies. The smaller, more agile English ships navigated the roaring waters of the North Sea, while the great hulking Spanish ships disintegrated in the towering storm-tossed ocean.

As the final day of the battle closed, a blazing sunset ripped across the sky. The frenzied sounds of the crashing ships and roaring guns became more and more intermittent, and the waters fumed and simmered in a flaming twilight. Throughout the night as the smoke and dust of battle dissipated, men cried out pitifully, their tortured bodies charred and their horror-filled minds still locked in the heat of battle.

Dominic Warbrooke made his nightly rounds with the young ship’s doctor who had replaced Ben. He shouldered his way from one terror-ridden seaman to the next. His own wounds were minor, he had decided, in light of the suffering that he saw on the decks of his embattled Raven. The young doctor had attempted to wrap Dominic’s cuts, but he had tersely ordered that his men be tended before him. Then he had charged off to tend to another of his injured crewmen.

Finally, Lord Howard had called off the pursuit of the Spanish in the North Sea on August 12. He had no choice for the English provisions were exhausted. It was not immediately apparent who had won.

In the captain’s cabin of the Raven, a single candle cast an eerie yellow light as rain-filled darkness settled over the scene battle. Dominic sat for many hours, reliving the events of the past two weeks. He counted himself fortunate, for he had lost no men. The entire English fleet had, in fact, lost only one-hundred men in action while the Spaniards had lost over ten thousand. At last the long-awaited attack of the Armada had come and gone, Dominic reflected.

“There will he no further fighting,” said Terrence Warbrooke as he moved quietly into the cabin. He slumped into a low chair.

Dominic’s head came up, and he eyed his father keenly. “Know you for certain that the battle has been won?” he inquired.

His father nodded. “It has,” he replied without emotion. “The might of England has won the day.” The older man allowed himself a small smile. “Did I say ‘won’?” He shook his head sadly. “We have driven off the mightiest fleet that ever sailed the seas, Dominic.” Both men were silent for a long moment. “Now we leave it to the winds and the weather to finally destroy it.” He took a harsh breath.

“When I see the waste of human lives, the depth of human suffering, I am convinced that there can be no victor in battle. We have lost over ten-thousand men in this contest-both English and Spanish. Can the human race afford such a loss? I am as patriotic as the next man, Dominic,” he said with a hardness in his voice that both surprised Dominic and filled him with admiration for his gentle father, “but when I see this destruction, I am filled with anger against the governments that force us to this savagery toward our fellow man. I pray to G-d, I do not live to see another such battle.”

Dominic nodded wearily. “I am ever ready to fight to the death against bullies and tyrants, Father, and I will fight again if my country asks it, but I would rather fight twelve Turks, hand to hand, than wreak destruction on a nameless sailor.”

The two men sat in silence in the flickering light for a long time. They were roused only when the young ship’s doctor came to finally dress the wounds of the bravest man he had ever met.

First the haze was purple, and then the purple turned to blue, the blue to pink and then to yellow as Maurette lifted her eyelids. She now saw the two presences that she had sensed. Lady Violet sat at her bedside, and next to her stood the formidable Edyth. Maurette tried to speak a welcome to her grandmother but found that her tongue was thickened and no sound would emerge.

“Missed you,” she finally managed in a small whisper. A wet cloth was pressed to her face, and a smooth silver cup was placed between her lips. Maurette raised her head, she was too weak to hold it up. Lady Violet instantly reached to cradle the back of Maurette’s head in her delicate hand, and Edyth whisked the cup from the attending woman to offer it herself to the weakened Maurette. After she had taken a few sips, she lay back on the pillow.

Maurette had felt the first gentle stirrings that morning, and now it was late into the night. The babe bumped and prowled within her body. At Edyth’s insistence, the birth would be accomplished in the new fashion imported from the French. Maurette would lie in the new fashion imported from the French. Maurette would lie abed in a horizontal position, and no birthing chair would be used in the final stage. Maurette had-been relieved at the news, for it sounded monstrous.

A woman was strapped in the chair by attendants, and it was jogged up and down in the hope of shaking the babe from the womb. A hole in the seat of the chair provided passage for the babe. Many women had suffered the agony of the birthing chair and had been damaged as much by its use as by the birth itself.

Ben moved silently into the room. “I have news,” he whispered to Lady Violet and Edyth. “Dominic is on his way.”

Maurette lifted her heavy eyelids. “Dominic,” she said softly. “Oh, please,” she breathed, “let him get here in time.” Ben and the women smiled gently.

“He will get here in time,” said Lady Violet. “And I have arranged with Elizabeth for one of her bishops to attend you when he does.” She turned to Edyth. “You had better send for him now,” she said.

Maurette’s frail body was sheened with perspiration. Her hair clung to her neck and shoulders despite the efforts of the attending women to keep it swept to the top of her head. She flushed beneath the covers with the arrival of each new pain. Ben moved to her side, and she smiled up at him. In the next moment, however, she sank into a sob-racked darkness.

She heard the decisive scrape of a man’s boot, then felt a cool dry hand on her brow. Images of Dominic’s bronzed face floated before her. She felt a tender breath upon her cheek; “I am here,” it intoned. “I am here.” She felt instantly secure and reached out to that whom she trusted above all others.

Just then, a pain-blackened mist enveloped her, and she cried out between parched lips. A strong presence supported her even as a terrible pushing pressure ripped at her. In her agony, she lifted her eyelids to see an unfamiliar face and form. A tall prelate in colorful vestments moved his lips. Sounds she did not recognize emanated from his stolid form.

Ben appeared at the end of her bed. Maurette felt herself sinking, sinking into a pain-fused oblivion She felt an ebon tide of searing flesh. Tearing, rending, shattering black pain was all. Her eyes opened wide once, and the images around her conjoined with one last stabbing, lacerating convulsion.

In that instant, a silken mist enfolded her. Like the petals of a white flower, it held her and lifted her from the pits of a hellish agony to the lofty heights of serenity. She heard a babe cry out, and then she heard nothing.

Blissfully, Maurette breathed in the aroma of sausages and freshly baked bread. “Lady Warbrooke,” said the soft voice. “Are you awake?” Lady Warbrooke? That name sounded so familiar. Maurette knew someone by that name. Who was it? The bed hanging stirred gently, and Maurette slowly opened her eyes. ‘Tis me-Kitty,” said the smiling girl. “I have brought your breakfast.” Maurette smiled back.

“Tell me of the babe, Kit.” Maurette whispered.

“He is wonderful. You shall see him for yourself very soon.”

“He?”

Kitty nodded brightly. “He is being shown off by his Father.”

Maurette felt a flood of warmth course through her. “Dominic is here? Did he see the babe born?”

Again Kitty nodded vigorously. “Do you remember nothing?”

Maurette shook her head then she halted mid-thought. “Did you address me as Lady Warbrooke?”

“I did,” said Kitty gently. She turned and retrieved Maurette’s breakfast tray. Setting it down on the bed next to her mistress, she said ” ‘Twill be your title from now on.” She giggled. “The bishop sent by Her Majesty and he made it just in time.”

Maurette pushed herself up into a sitting position. Her eyes were wide in wonderment. “We are wed?”

“You are,” stated Kitty. “Everyone was here. Geoffrey and Doctor Termain and your grandmother and Edyth and my father and your father-in-law. Even Jonathan came in with a tray of wedding cakes.”

“It must have been a lovely wedding,” said Maurette with a wry smile.

“The loveliest I have ever seen,” said a male voice behind Kitty. The girl turned, and pulled the bed hanging aside, she allowed Maurette a view of her tall husband. In his arms he carried their babe. The small wrapped thing looked so tiny against his broad chest. Maurette held out her arms, and he advanced and laid the child in her arms. Kitty withdrew softly.

Maurette drew the cloth from the tiny body that she held. His arms and legs unburdened, he began to stretch and beat his hands gently at the air. His little face turned immediately to his mother’s breast, and almost before she could bare herself, he began to suckle. Dominic joined them, sitting on the edge of the bed. He moved aside the breakfast tray so that he could be near the two beings he loved best in all the world.

Maurette gazed into his eyes, and her own were liquid lavender. “We are wed,” she whispered.

“Yes,” Dominic reverently. “I did not have time to request your hand in a formal manner, my lady, and so I took the initiative.”

“I am glad you did, my lord.”

“But now, methinks, ’tis time the formal request be made.” He took her hand in his. “Will you do me the honor, Maurette, of becoming my bride?”

“The honor will be mine, Dominic,” she replied softly.

Dominic Warbrooke bowed his and pressed her small white hand to his rough cheek. “Thank you with all my heart,” he said. Then he looked up into Maurette’s eyes, which were a-shimmer with love and warmth. “I have had a thought on the babe’s name. May I tell you what it is?” Maurette nodded, encouraging him to go on. “I have thought that we might name him … Alex.”

Maurette smiled deeply and closed her eyes, imagining her father’s reaction when he heard that news. “Papa will like that,” she said softly.

Dominic laid a big hand on the babe, and it squirmed comfortably beneath his touch. “Look what we have made, madam,” he said in wonder. “Alexander Warbrooke.” He allowed a smile to settle over his bronzed features. “We must be ever watchful that he does not grow up to be like his father.”

Maurette smiled, too. “He shall be exactly like his father,” she stated. “Perhaps he shall be of a less mercurial nature,” she demurred, “and perhaps less complex where affairs of the heart are concerned, and perhaps he will be of a more peaceful temperament -”

“But he will be exactly like his father,” Dominic said with a deep laugh.

“Of course he will,” said Maurette with a soft laugh of her own. “I would not have him any other way.”

“Oh Maurette, my little one, I will love forever.”

THE END

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