Authors: June Francis
Tags: #Romance, #General, #Historical, #Fiction
Rosamund said, ‘What a strange comment to make. Did he say whom this captain reminded him of?’
‘No. And I have not seen either of them since then.’
‘Perhaps your young captain is dead.’
Her words gave him a shock. ‘That I have not considered.’
‘Why? If he is a seafarer, then it is a possibility, is it not?’
Alex could not deny it. ‘I sense he is alive,’ he said abruptly.
‘Why, if you have not seen him? Would you have expected to have seen him during the time that has passed since you last did so?’
‘In the circumstances, no.’
‘What circumstances are these?’
He gave her an exasperated look. ‘It is I who ask the questions.’
‘I have already answered several of yours,’ she said.
‘Then answer me this one,’ said Alex. ‘Give me the name of your stepbrother in London.’
She sighed. ‘I cannot understand your interest if you are but a travelling jack of all trades. I deem, Master Nilsson, that you are not being honest with me.’
‘I admit it, but I still want an answer to my question,’ he said in a steely voice.
‘Can’t it wait until we reach London?’
‘No! I have much to do when I arrive there,’ he said, hanging on to his patience.
‘Then if I must, I must. I just pray to our Lady and all the saints that I can trust you, Master Nilsson. His name is Edward Fustian.’
Fustian! Alex had met the man and considered him a smarmy, arrogant, insular fellow. He had a certain attraction for the ladies, which irritated Alex exceedingly. He had heard it from Ingrid that he beat his wife and treated her like dirt beneath his feet. Yet he had not thought to include him in the names on the list of those he suspected might be guilty of passing on information about cargoes and times of departure of ships sailing from the port of London.
‘I have met him, but do not know him well,’ said Alex. ‘I have heard he is not kind to his wife.’
Rosamund nodded and said in a seething voice, ‘She had several bruises last time I saw her. She was a cowed little woman and so were her daughters. I felt so sorry for her because I understood what she was going through.’
‘Could you not have helped her?’
‘I would have liked to, but you have not met my stepmother, Master Nilsson, or grown up with Edward.’
‘Tell me about it.’
Rosamund took a deep breath. ‘I thought at first that Edward might prove to be another brother to me. He is some five years older and at first he showed me some kindness, but it was not long before he revealed his true colours.’ Her voice quivered. ‘Overbearing, arrogant and swift to lash out at me with his tongue and fist.’ The memory she had buried burst forth and she remembered, when first she had shown signs of early womanhood, how Edward had whispered lewd suggestions in her ear and pulled up her skirts. She took a shuddering breath. ‘I wish I’d had the courage to kill him.’
Aware that she was deeply disturbed, Alex said, ‘You do not have to continue if you find speaking of it upsetting.’
‘No. I deem there is a purpose in your questioning. If somehow you could bring Edward to his knees, then I would do anything to help you.’
‘Is that a promise?’
‘In as much as I will be able to keep it.’
‘Was he never chided?’ he rasped.
‘He was always careful not to misbehave when my father was there. Fortunately there came a day when he was caught out and despatched to serve his apprenticeship in Father’s business. I was never so glad of anything in my life. Although that was not the end of it. My stepmother was furious because she was in favour of a match between us, but she could not persuade Father into her way of thinking. That made her even angrier with me, but I pretended to be a fool and allowed her to treat me like one. I discovered a long time ago that, if I remained quietly in a corner, people would forget I was there and carry on all kinds of conversations with no thought to whom might be listening.’
Alex was impressed by her perception, even as he was aware that she had let two nuggets of information slip. She had touched on a match between herself and Edward and mentioned that she had thought he would be like another brother to her. Had she realised she had just revealed to him that she was a woman? Also, that was twice she had referred to a brother. How long was it since she had lost her brother? How and when had he died? Why should her stepmother wish for a match between her son and the stepdaughter she believed crazy? Was it that she had persuaded her husband that he should not leave his property to his daughter and instead make her son his heir? Was it possible that she believed her son’s position precarious and that was why she had suggested a match between the two? Obviously she had overplayed her hand. He wished that he could have met the lady so as to draw his own conclusions.
‘What else have you learnt by your eavesdropping?’ he asked.
She replied promptly, ‘That the Hanseatic League’s monopoly of trade in the Baltic infuriates Edward.’
That did not surprise Alex, for it angered most merchants who wanted to buy into such markets themselves. He asked her no more questions, deciding that a little silence would give them both time for reflection. He would like to know about her brother and how he had died, but that information could wait. They were still many leagues from London.
When they came to the next inn, Rosamund was too weary to attempt to converse with Master Nilsson. Indeed, she decided she had given him enough information about her stepfamily. Fortunately, he seemed in no mood to talk
further; as it happened that night they were not alone in a sleeping chamber, but shared it with other travellers.
The next day she expected him to ask her more questions about Edward or Harry, but to her surprise he enquired instead about her other stepbrother.
The question startled her. ‘William! You want to know about William?’
‘Why not? Surely you have something to tell me about him?’
Rosamund’s hands tightened on the pillion seat as she considered what he would make of her answer. She decided that it should be safe enough to speak honestly of William. ‘He is a lack-wit, but one wonders if that is the fault of his mother. She is for ever hitting him across the head and comparing him to his elder brother. Yet he will do anything for her and his brother, which is a big mistake.’
‘Why is that?’
‘They are bad examples of how a decent man should behave. I feel sorry for the poor girl who is destined to marry him.’
‘Who is this maiden?’
‘I know only that her name is Bridget and that she is a niece to a close kinsman of my stepmother.’
‘Your younger stepbrother takes no interest in your stepbrother’s business?’
Rosamund shook her head. ‘He does not have the wit.’
‘Then who oversees Appleby Manor?’
‘My stepmother,’ she said bitterly. ‘She persuaded my father I was incapable of doing so.’
‘That must have infuriated you.’
‘Indeed it did, but Father had no faith in my abilities. He believed my stepmother’s estimation of my character.’
‘Does your anger extend to him?’
Rosamund did not answer.
Alex did not press her. It was obvious that Mistress Appleby had been sorely treated by not only her stepfamily, but also her father. He recalled Sir James Appleby gazing up at Harry and the words he had spoken. Was the loss of his son reason enough for a father to treat his daughter so thoughtlessly? He set out to entertain her for the rest of the journey.
During the day he talked about the countries he had visited and told her about the ways he had kept body and soul together. He spoke of playing in a troupe of entertainers and made her laugh by telling her jests and describing some of the japes and dances they performed. He found himself enjoying sharing such tales with her. He spoke of Sweden and the beauty of its countryside and the splendour of its cities. Yet he never mentioned his title or wealth or the task his father had set him. He was only prepared to trust Mistress Appleby so far.
As for Rosamund, she was made only more wary by the change in him. Why was he trying to charm her? It was quite a struggle to resist him. Sometimes on wakening there was a moment when they turned over and their faces were but a foot away and they caught the other’s eye. Then she thought she saw an expression in his face that melted her insides, but she fought against such feelings.
y the time they arrived at St Albans, a town where two great battles had been fought between the Houses of Lancaster and York, she was feeling the strain of pretending that she was a man and she knew that she had to get away from Master Nilsson. This despite the promise she had voiced to bring Edward to his knees. For the last time on that journey, she went inside an inn and upstairs to the bedchamber that once again he arranged for them. The room was cold and she thought how often she would have liked to snuggle up to him and share his warmth and feel his strong arms holding her secure, but she told herself that this was confused thinking.
A sigh escaped her. Tomorrow they would arrive in London and she would need to find her godmother’s house. The thought lifted her heart. She might be uncertain of its whereabouts, but she could ask for directions; surely if her godmother had sent a servant to enquire about her, then she should be pleased to see her. The trouble was that after being on the road for so many days, wearing the same
garments, she was travel-stained and smelly. The worry of it all quite made her lose her appetite and imbibe more wine than usual.
‘Ach! Master Appleby, you haven’t eaten enough to keep a sparrow alive,’ said Alex, staring across the table at the slender face made rosy by wind and wintry sun. ‘You have proved your stamina equal to mine in the last few days, so what is it that has ruined your taste for food now we are nearing journey’s end?’
‘Would you say I have proved myself as good as many a man?’ The words were slurred as she swirled the mulled wine in her cup.
Alex’s eyes narrowed. ‘There is no need for you to prove yourself to me. Although I suppose in the circumstances it is natural for you to do so.’
‘What circumstances?’ she muttered, staring at him from beneath drooping eyelids as she reached for the wine.
He did not answer her question, but moved the pitcher beyond her reach. ‘You will want a clear head when you reach London,’ he said.
‘London,’ she uttered drowsily. ‘There all will change between us.’ She yawned and closed her eyes and her head nodded.
Alex reached forward and cupped her chin before her face could land in the bowl of soup. He stood up, eased himself around the table and managed to place an arm beneath her knees. He lifted her and carried her over to the bed. There he drew back the bedcovers and laid her down before tucking them in round her. Then he went and sat in a chair and brooded on their situation and what to do when they arrived in London. Would she volunteer the truth at last?
He reached for his cloak and wrapped it round him and prepared himself for a long night.
At some point he must have dozed off, because he was roused by the sound of a woman sobbing. Forcing his eyelids open, he pushed himself out of the chair and went over to the bed.
‘What is troubling you?’ he asked gently.
She did not respond, but continued to weep. By the dying light of the fire he could see that her eyes were still closed. Suddenly, she ceased crying and, instead, started to speak. He lowered his head in an attempt to catch the words.
‘Harry, where are you, Harry? Where are they taking you? Don’t leave me alone with her!’ Her voice dropped and he had to bring his head even closer to hers. ‘Papa, listen to me. It was not my fault! I wanted to save Mama, but she would not let me near her. She would force that vile potion down my throat and Edward stood watching and laughing.’ She fell silent a moment and then she spoke again. ‘Edward, keep away from me! Do not touch me! It is wrong!’ she cried. ‘Papa, listen to me. I am telling the truth. I am not mad. Oh, why don’t you believe me? Why can’t you love me like you did Harry and Mama?’ Suddenly she sat up and Alex had to draw away from her. Her hat fell off, along with her cap, and her dark hair tumbled about her shoulders. A small hand shot out and seized hold of Alex. ‘You must find Harry!’ she cried.
Alex was deeply disturbed by her distress. ‘You need not fear. I will find him,’ he assured her.
‘Good,’ she murmured, subsiding.
Only when he thought she had fallen asleep again did
Alex make a move to remove the hand that rested on his thigh. Her fingers tightened about his and she rolled over and rested her head against his leg. He could not resist stroking her hair or brushing her lips with his own. She let out a wine-scented breath against his mouth. He remained where he was for a long time, caressing the side of her face with a gentle hand until he was certain that this time she was truly asleep. Then he managed to free his hand and return to the chair. He wondered if, when she woke, she would remember what had taken place. He needed to discover how her brother had died—only then would he know whether he would be able to keep his word to her. As for Edward Fustian, the world would be a better place without him. He closed his eyes, but it was some time before he fell asleep.
Rosamund woke just as it was getting light and turned over on to her side. Stretching out a hand, she felt for the man she expected to find at her side. Empty! She sat up and the pain in her head thumped in rhythm with the increased beat of her heart. She was terribly thirsty and could not remember getting into bed or aught of their conversation last evening. Where was Master Nilsson? Had he carried her to bed because she was drunk and, disgusted with her behaviour, left her to sleep alone? For this to happen now utterly depressed her spirits.
Her eyes pierced the dimness of the bedchamber and she was able to make out a figure in a chair. Now she became aware of his steady breathing and she slid soundlessly off the bed. She felt dizzy and her throat was tight with misery. This time there really was a need for a parting of the ways.
For him to choose a chair rather than remain in the bed spoke much of how he must feel towards her.
She searched for her outer garments and boots and, by some miracle, found them without waking him. She did not pause to put them on, but cautiously went over to the door and unlocked it. She opened it a fraction, managed to ease herself through the gap and closed the door behind her. She would travel the rest of the way to London on foot; if God forgave her and answered her prayer, then she would find her godmother’s house before dark. If she and Master Nilsson were ever to meet again, she prayed that he would not recognise his erstwhile travelling companion in Mistress Rosamund Appleby.
Alex woke suddenly and wondered what it was that had disturbed him. It was morning and his gaze darted to the bed. He saw that the bedclothes had been flung back and the bed was empty. He found the door unlocked and hurried downstairs, hoping to find Mistress Appleby taking the fresh air to clear her head. There was no sign of her and he hurried to the stables. His horse was still there, but she was nowhere to be found. Why had she deserted him now? Had she not been fully asleep when he had kissed her? He could think of no other reason why she had taken fright and cursed himself for giving in to temptation. He saddled up his horse and knew he had to find her before she ended up in trouble.
Rosamund thanked the carter who had been kind enough to give her a lift on the last stage of her journey and limped along Aldersgate Street. She glanced up at the
threatening sky and knew she had to find her godmother’s house before nightfall. But first she needed a gown to wear. Perhaps she could exchange her cloak for a used gown. Surely there would be a used-clothes dealer somewhere in London? But where exactly? She passed St Paul’s Cathedral and Paternoster Row where shops sold rosaries in their hundreds. She paused to gaze inside a workshop and marvelled to see books being produced on a printing press. She felt certain Master Nilsson would have been interested to see the printers at work because it had become obvious to her that he was an educated man. But she must not think of him, she had to hurry.
A short while later she had still not found a used-clothes dealer. She glanced up at the darkening sky and felt the cold sting of a snowflake touch her cheek; then a positive flurry of snowflakes threatened to blind her. She hurried, but soon realised that she was lost. Suddenly she heard a slithering sound and heavy breathing, then came a suppressed cough. ‘Is there someone there?’ she called. ‘Can you help me?’
A figure loomed out of a doorway a few yards ahead. ‘Depends on whether yer can make it worth me while,’ said the man.
‘What do you mean?’ she asked with a tremor in her voice.
‘What do yer think I mean?’ he sneered.
A hand shot out and seized her arm. Her heart gave a frightening lurch and she managed to tear herself from his grasp. She made to run, but he caught hold of her cloak and dragged her back against him. Her hat went flying as he pinned her arms to her sides.
‘What is it you want?’ she cried.
‘Coin to buy bread and a pallet for the night,’ he replied.
‘I have none. I’m just a poor lad who’s come from the country to try to earn a crust.’
‘Then I’ll have to take yer cloak,’ said that voice in her ear. His foul breath caused her to gag. ‘And don’t try any funny business or I’ll choke the life out of yer.’
With shaking hands Rosamund attempted to unfasten the ties at her throat. But he grew impatient and dragged the garment from her, causing the ties to snap, before running off with it. Furious with herself for behaving like a frightened hen, she gave chase. After all, it was possible that he would lead her out of this maze of alleys. Instead, she ended up blundering into a wall. Her hands explored its surface and she discovered that it loomed high above her and carried on horizontally for what seemed an age.
Surely it must lead somewhere?
Rosamund jogged beside it, tripping over rubbish several times in the gathering gloom. At last she came to a gateway and was about to try to open the door when she heard footsteps on the other side. The door opened and a religious appeared. She gazed at Rosamund from beneath her wimple and suddenly her eyes widened.
‘By the saints, Harry, where have you been these past six months?’ she asked in a charmingly accented voice. ‘Why did you have to go off the way you did? There was really no need. You won’t know it, but Alex left London. Although perhaps you met with him on your travels?’ she asked anxiously.
‘I think you are mistaking me for someone else,’ said Rosamund.
The nun looked uncertain and peered into Rosamund’s
damp face. ‘Aye, I see now that you are not Black Harry, but you are very like him.’ She placed a hand on Rosamund’s chest and smiled straight into her eyes. ‘Is it possible that you are kin to him?’
‘I don’t know a Black Harry. I had a brother once called Harry, but he drowned.’
The nun’s expression altered. ‘You must come with me. I know someone who would be interested to meet you.’
Rosamund felt a prickly feeling in the nape of her neck and suddenly knew this religious was perhaps not what she seemed. At that moment there was the sound of a man’s voice in the yard behind her. Instantly, Rosamund recognised her stepbrother’s voice. She shoved the nun against the door and then she ran like the wind along the passageway.
To her relief there came a turning and the next moment she arrived at a tributary of the Thames. She paused to catch her breath, but she knew she could not delay. She might be completely mistaken about the nun, but she definitely was not about that voice. Lowering her head against the swirling snowflakes, Rosamund began to walk uphill. So it was she did not notice the tall, dark figure coming towards her and blundered into him. Caught off balance, he swayed. She clutched his cloak, but he slipped in the snow and they both fell to the ground with her on top of him. He arched his body in an attempt to throw her off, but she was entangled in his cloak so that proved impossible. He reached up and pushed. Rosamund gasped, thinking that he must not have realised where he had put his hands and dragged on one of his arms. ‘Master, will you desist and release me!’ she cried in a panic.
On hearing that muffled voice coming from somewhere beneath his cloak, Alex could scarcely believe his luck. ‘Master Appleby! Or should I say
he said in a velvety tone.
Rosamund collapsed on top of him and lay unmoving, listening to the heavy thud-thud-thud of his heart and the gallop of her own. He knew her secret, but she deemed him the lesser of two evils. ‘Master Nilsson,’ she gasped. ‘I lost myself in the back alleys and was robbed of my cloak and then I saw a religious, who thought I was someone called Black Harry. I find that very strange in the light of my having had a brother called Harry. Then whose voice did I hear beyond the wall but that of my stepbrother, Edward.’
‘You mean Fustian was inside the Steel Yard?’
‘Keep your voice down! So that’s what that place is,’ she murmured. ‘I have heard of the headquarters of the Hanseatic League, but never set foot inside. What was Edward doing there? I knew I had to escape. If he catches me now, then it will be your fault. You’re lying on part of your cloak and I can’t tug it free.’
‘Will you be quiet! Now, if you will release your hold on my cloak we can free ourselves.’
Relieved, she tried to do as he asked, but one of her hands was caught beneath his body and it required effort to free it. He hissed at her to stop.
‘But you’re lying on my hand,’ she explained in an undertone.
He muttered indistinctly, lifting himself up and glancing about him as he did so. He tried not to think about what was going on in his loins. Mistress Appleby might have
stopped wriggling, but the damage was already done and he could only hope she was unaware of his arousal. What was it about this woman that she could stir up a whole host of conflicting emotions inside him at such a dangerous time? If Fustian came upon them now, then they would be at a huge disadvantage.
‘That’s better,’ gasped Rosamund, stretched her cramped fingers. She felt a bump against her belly and shifted to avoid it.
Alex groaned and, making an enormous effort, raised himself higher, taking him with her. With a final thrust he managed to throw her aside.