Authors: June Francis
Tags: #Romance, #General, #Historical, #Fiction
Rosamund scrambled to her feet and took several deep breaths. Despite the cold and damp, she had felt a heat between them that had her wanting to fan herself. But now was not the time to think of such things. They had to get away. She had only taken a couple of steps when a noise to her rear warned her that they were not alone. She called a warning to Alex before she was seized from behind.
‘Let me go,’ she cried, fearing that she had been caught by Edward.
‘Youse shut yer mouth and keep yer orders to yerself,’ snapped an unfamiliar voice.
Rosamund could scarcely believe that she had been captured by another ruffian. ‘Not now,’ she muttered, struggling to free herself.
‘We wants to know what yer’ve got in yer pockets,’ snarled the man, twisting her right arm up her back. She cried out in pain.
‘Hold fast there,’ said Alex, drawing not only his own
sword, but Rosamund’s short-sword as well. ‘Release her at once.’
‘Another furriner giving his orders,’ said a woman with a sniff.
‘Just do as I say or I’ll run you through,’ said Alex.
The man who held Rosamund captive produced a dagger. ‘Come one step nearer and I’ll slit his throat.’
‘You have too much to say for yourself,’ growled Alex, and with one swift movement he knocked the dagger from the man’s hand and then, with a twirl of the other sword, he caught him a blow beneath the chin with its hilt. The dagger flew off into the darkness and the man’s hold on Rosamund’s arm slackened as he slid to the ground.
‘Hey, what have yer dun to him?’ asked his accomplice.
Alex did not bother replying, but seized Rosamund’s hand and dragged her away, hurrying her along the bank of the tributary until the woman’s cries faded into the distance.
‘Wh-where are we going?’ asked Rosamund, needing to clench her teeth in an attempt to stop them from chattering. She could not see the way ahead.
Alex bit back an oath and removed his own cloak and wrapped it round her. His fingers brushed her throat as he tied the strings and she trembled.
‘Keep still and be glad you’re a woman,’ he said brusquely. ‘I wouldn’t be so gallant if you were a man.’
‘Why should y-you feel a n-need to be gallant when y-you must believe my behaviour w-w-wicked and unseemly?’
‘I was taught by my grandmother to respect women. A habit I find difficult to break. Come, we must go carefully. I have friends who can provide us with a hot tub and dry clothing.’
‘Where is your horse?’ she asked.
‘At their house. I stabled him whilst I visited a couple of places.’
‘But I told you I had to see Lady Elizabeth Stanley. Did you not think of going to her home in search of me?’
‘Aye. But not immediately. Anyway, we are some way from her mansion.’
‘I was looking for a used-clothes dealer in the hope of exchanging my cloak for a gown.’
‘Then you are in luck,’ said Alex, stepping carefully. ‘Tell me, how did you reach London so swiftly on foot?’
‘A man took pity on me and let me ride in his cart. I was limping because my feet were sore.’ Suddenly she slipped in the snow and was saved only by the strength in his wrist.
‘You should not have run away from me.’ His tone was vexed.
‘I had to because I believed you had a disgust of me for getting drunk.’ She gripped his hand tightly, still concerned about slipping in the snow. ‘Tell me, how did I betray myself?’
‘Your eyes, your lips and the way you swing your hips when you walk—the timbre of your voice and not even a hint of a whisker on your chin. Of course, there was also the slip about your stepmother wanting you to marry Edward.’
‘How foolish of me!’ She sighed heavily. ‘But why did you not mention it at the time? I see I made lots of mistakes, but I swear on my mother’s grave that everything I told you about myself and my stepfamily is true.’
‘If I did not believe that, then I would not be taking you to my friends. How old are you, Mistress Appleby?’
‘I have seen twenty-two summers, not eighteen,’ she
said rapidly. ‘Do you not think it strange that that religious mistook me for this Black Harry?’
‘How did your brother die?’
‘Lady Monica told me he drowned. His clothes were found close to a part of the river where he used to bathe.’
‘Was his body ever found?’
‘No, but she initiated a search.’
‘It is still possible that he did not drown,’ said Alex. ‘I must tell you, Mistress Appleby, that you were crying in your sleep last night. You believed he was being carried away.’
Rosamund stopped in her tracks. ‘You mean my dream of him being carried away was not a delusion, but real?’ she asked in a strained voice.
‘Aye. It can be the only answer to your not only being mistaken for this Black Harry, but also for your father seeing a likeness to someone in a past life in this same Black Harry.’
Rosamund’s mouth fell open and then she clamped it shut and took a deep breath before saying in a rush, ‘How do you know this about my father?’
‘Because he spoke those words to me on the only occasion I met him.’
Rosamund experienced such a splurge of joy that it rocked her to her heels and she needed to clutch Alex all the tighter. ‘I so want to believe it,’ she said.
‘Then you must because I deem it the truth.’
Tears welled in Rosamund’s eyes. ‘I remember my brother well. I loved him dearly,’ she said softly. ‘He was protective towards me and was brave and funny.’
‘Do not expect him to be exactly the same as you remember,’ warned Alex. ‘That’s if we ever find him. People change.’
‘Not Harry,’ she said firmly.
‘How can you possibly know? I trusted him like you did. When I first knew him I believed he possessed all the qualities you mentioned. But he betrayed me for the love of Ingrid and a stolen cargo.’
‘I don’t believe my brother is a thief and you are saying that love changes people for the worst? I do not believe that either,’ she said stoutly.
‘I deem you have never been in love, Mistress Appleby,’ he rasped. ‘Passion, desire, lust can drive a man to do things that he would never normally do.’
‘More fool the man,’ she retorted. ‘Oh, how I wish Father was here! This news would have made him so happy.’
Alex looked at her in astonishment. ‘Your father treated you disgracefully. And he did not even say that that likeness was to his own son, but just someone in a past life.’
Some of her joy evaporated and Rosamund said, ‘You would not know how badly my mother’s death affected my father and then on top of those tidings came the news that Harry had drowned. I believe my stepmother—not that she was my stepmother then—told him that the grief had driven me mad. And it is true that I was bereft.’
‘All the more reason for him to show you love instead of allowing that woman and her sons to try to sap your spirit utterly,’ he said roundly. ‘I am just amazed that they did not succeed.’
Rosamund was silent, touched by his championing her in such a way.
Alex smiled. ‘I can see I have taken your breath away. Time to move on, I deem.’
To her further amazement, he swung her up into his arms. ‘What are you doing?’ she asked. ‘You must let me down.’
‘Be quiet, woman! You have caused me enough trouble already. Now relax and let me make haste.’
Rosamund said no more. She might be shivery and exhausted, happy and sad and utterly astounded by the fact that Harry was alive, not to mention being vexed with Master Nilsson for doubting Harry’s loyalty, but at least he seemed willing to still help her.
‘These friends of yours…?’ she asked.
‘As I said earlier, Mistress Appleby, you are in luck. They make a living from buying and selling used garments. My friend, Walther, is Swedish and married to Maud, who is a Londoner, born and bred. They have been of great help to me and I know that I can always count on finding a bed at their house when I stay in the city.’
‘Will they have a separate bedchamber for me?’ asked Rosamund.
His arms tightened about her. ‘You worry needlessly, mistress. I will explain just enough to satisfy them why you are dressed as you are. Now, do you feel strong enough to stand?’ he asked.
Despite still feeling shaky, Rosamund said, ‘Of course. How can you ask after my surviving the journey we made together?’
He felt truly rebuked and set her down. After producing the key, he opened one of the doors and ushered her into a large yard. ‘Beware of the washing lines.’
He stretched out a hand to her and she took it thankfully. He steered her between the lines towards a building at the far end of the yard, where light gleamed through the
shutters. He knocked on a door and called out in the Swedish tongue. There came an excited voice and then bolts were drawn back. The door opened to reveal a man holding a lantern who addressed Alex in his own language. They spoke for several moments before Alex turned to Rosamund.
‘This is my friend Walther. He welcomes you to his home.’
Rosamund thanked him in English and was relieved that he made no sign of disapproval of the way she was dressed. Even so she felt awkward and warm with embarrassment. Her awkwardness deepened when an older woman entered the room, but her primary attention was not for her, but Master Nilsson. Rosamund watched the woman smile at the sight of him.
‘So, you have come back for your horse.’
‘Aye, but I wish to ask more of you than stabling my horse.’
‘Of course, anything you want.’ She frowned suddenly. ‘But you are soaking wet and…’ She peered over his shoulder and whispered, ‘Who is this you have brought us? One of your spies in need of a new disguise?’
Alex nodded. ‘But do not speak of the work to her. Mistress Appleby is chilled to the bone and in need of a hot tub—as am I. You must also find for her several of your best gowns and the necessary accessories—we are to visit the Lady Elizabeth Stanley on the morrow. Can you provide us with bedchambers for this night? You will not lose by it.’
Maud nodded. ‘Walther told me earlier that you have asked him to hire some men to keep a watch on Master William Fustian’s house. We do not like the man. He would put us out of business if he could.’
Alex nodded. ‘He has no liking for foreigners, which is
strange when he has to do business with them. Anyway, he is unaware that Mistress Appleby is in my company so he will not come here.’
She nodded. ‘I will go now and speak to the maids and have them fill tubs for you both.’
Alex rejoined Rosamund. ‘I have explained your needs to Maud, Mistress Appleby, and she is having a hot tub made ready for you.’
‘You did not tell her everything?’ asked Rosamund, mortified at the thought of the older woman knowing she had spent nights, never mind days, alone with this man.
‘Of course not. She believes you are a spy in disguise and in need of a few changes of costume.’
Rosamund gasped and put a hand to her mouth and said in a muffled voice, ‘You jest!’
Rosamund felt a tap on her shoulder and turned to see Maud smiling at her. ‘It is a pleasure to have you here with us, Mistress Appleby. I have ordered a maid to fill a tub for you, but first you will follow me to the parlour.’
Her friendly manner made Rosamund feel at ease. ‘I appreciate your kindness in coming to my aid.’
‘It is always a pleasure to help one’s friends. You will take a cup of mead? No doubt you are hungry, too. I’ve smoked eel and bread.’
Rosamund’s face lit up. ‘You are generous. I have not eaten all day.’
‘Then follow me. You can warm yourself by the fire and I will have a maid bring food and mead whilst I see what I can find for you in the way of gowns for your latest assignment.’
osamund nodded dumbly, glanced at Master Nilsson to see if he was coming as well, but he was in conversation with Walther. She followed Maud through an unlit chamber and into another room. There a fire glowed on the hearth and several candles provided extra light. She was shown to a cushioned settle and then left alone. She removed her wet gloves and placed them on the hearth to dry. Master Nilsson must be playing games with her. She was no spy!
A maid entered the room, carrying a tray upon which there was a platter of food and a drinking vessel. She slanted a curious glance at Rosamund as she set food and drink on the table and, then, with a whisk of skirts, she was gone.
By the time Rosamund had consumed the food and drunk the mead Maud had returned to the parlour. She bid Rosamund follow her and took her to a room containing a steaming wooden tub.
‘This is where we wash the clothes that we buy. Some we just hang in the steam and clean any stains because
washing would ruin the fabric,’ she explained. ‘You’ll find all you need on the chair. I’ll return in a short while.’
As soon as Rosamund was alone she stripped off her travel-stained garments. Then she tested the water with her elbow before lowering herself into its depths. For a moment she just sat there with her legs hunched up against her body, relishing the heat. Then she reached for the soap and gave herself a thorough cleansing, including her hair. As she did so, her thoughts were of Master Nilsson and how he had wrapped his cloak round her and lifted her off her feet. A picture suddenly flashed into her mind of a figure bending over her, crooning
‘Little Rosie is crazy!’
A cold shiver ran down her spine and she was remembering someone holding her down whilst her stepmother forced her mouth open and spooned in the liquid. She could hear Edward asking his mother what effect the potion would have on Rosamund’s mind. Loathing filled her and she so longed for them both to suffer for all they had put her family through that she vowed she would not rest until it came about. And she was convinced that Harry would feel the same.
She did not linger in the tub for long; by the time she had wrapped a drying cloth around her and was rubbing her hair dry, Maud returned with a woollen dressing robe. ‘Goodness! How different you look already,’ she said, holding out the robe to her guest.
Rosamund smiled shyly and slipped her hands through the sleeves and fastened the belt about her slender waist. Then she followed Maud from the room and up a flight of stairs.
‘You will sleep here, Mistress Appleby,’ said Maud, stopping outside a door.
Rosamund followed her inside, only to stop short when she saw Master Nilsson standing there. Alex’s gaze washed over her and paused a fraction as his eyes rested on her cleavage. She had made a handsome young man, but she was even lovelier as a woman.
‘I beg your pardon for invading your privacy. I saw a light in here and was curious. I stayed to approve Maud’s choice of gowns,’ he said.
With his eyes upon her in a way that made her aware of her femininity, Rosamund drew the opening of her robe closer together. She looked down at the garments spread out on the bed and her dark brows knit. ‘ do not have any money to pay for them,’ she said.
‘I will do so,’ said Alex firmly.
Rosamund shook her head. ‘I know you paid for my food and lodgings on the journey, but that was different. I cannot allow you to do this for me.’
‘Why?’ He seemed amused. ‘Perhaps you have me written off as a pauper.’
She hesitated. ‘You cannot be rich if you need to wander hither and thither far from your own country, taking
work where you can find it and performing in front of whoever will pay you. I know you have spoken of your grandfather’s business, but—’
‘You still know little about my life,’ said Alex in a mild tone. ‘But if it bothers you, I will simply loan you the money. You need to make a good impression on her ladyship if you wish to obtain her support in delving into the circumstances surrounding your father’s death. These gowns will not cost a fortune, but should be suitable for that purpose.’
Rosamund moved over to the bed and fingered one of the gowns. Alex gazed over her shoulder and said, ‘That is an excellent colour and will match your eyes.’
Rosamund felt her cheeks warm and was glad he could not see her face. ‘Aye. It is the kind of dark blue I like,’ she said casually.
She turned to speak to Maud about the blue gown, but realised she must have slipped out of the bedchamber whilst she and Master Nilsson were talking. ‘Where has Maud gone? Now we are here in your friends’ house, we must have a care for our reputations.’
He said seriously, ‘You are right to be concerned about such matters, but Maud and Walther would not expect me to behave in any other way than honourably to a woman.’
‘Tell me, when did you first realise I was a woman?’ she asked curiously.
Alex leant against a bedpost where he could watch her expression. ‘I suspected you were not all you seemed that first night back in the cave.’
She was taken aback. ‘So soon!’
‘Aye. But there is no need to feel that you must marry me. It is our secret that we spent several nights together.’ The words were out before he could recall them and he wondered why he had mentioned marriage. It had not been in his thoughts at all.
Rosamund had not even considered the need for him to make a respectable woman of her, but she did now. The bedchamber appeared to tilt and then spin round so that she had need to clutch one of the other bedposts.
‘I do not wish to be married right now. I have to find
Harry and make my stepmother suffer by bringing Edward to his knees.’
Alex felt a vague disappointment that she had no desire to marry him. ‘I am glad that you are a woman of good sense,’ he said brusquely. ‘Marriage would be a complication in my life that I can well do without.’
‘Then that is settled and we will not refer to it again,’ said Rosamund, pushing aside the garments on the bed and sitting down. ‘It is not that I do not enjoy your company,’ she added, toying with her fingernails. ‘But naught happened between us that either of us needs to feel guilty about.’ Her cheeks burned as she remembered how she had wanted him to kiss her and hold her. ‘I am still chaste,’ she added, a quiver in her voice, ‘so let us move on to talk of other matters.’
Alex went to a dressing table upon which were items for a woman’s
He picked up a comb and ran a fingernail along its teeth. ‘As you are such a woman of good sense, I will broach a matter that is on my mind. Have you considered the likelihood of Lady Elizabeth refusing to help you and your stepbrother seeking you out and forcing you to go with him?’
Rosamund said, ‘I do not believe that she will refuse me. I have not been completely honest with you concerning Lady Elizabeth. I kept from you that she is my godmother.’
Alex dropped the comb and whirled round to face her. ‘Your godmother! Why did you keep this a secret from me?’ he demanded.
‘Because you would have questioned why the person I was pretending to be had a lady for a godmother,’ said Rosamund. ‘I am certain there is that in your life that you
have not told me—and why should you when we scarcely know each other? Besides, I have not seen my godmother since before my mother died. Yet I have this hope that she will welcome me like a daughter. Then when Harry comes home I could keep house for him.’ She paused. ‘Which reminds me of something that religious said when she thought I was Harry.’
Alex fixed her with a stare. ‘What did she say?’
Rosamund concentrated. ‘Something like
“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?”’
Alex swore beneath his breath in his own tongue.
‘Obviously it means something to you,’ said Rosamund.
He nodded. ‘It was Ingrid you spoke to.’
‘Ingrid! But isn’t she the woman who—?’
‘Aye. And it seems I have misjudged her.’
‘And my brother? How upsetting! She must have taken the veil because you both broke her heart.’ She could not prevent a touch of sarcasm invading her voice.
‘I do not think so,’ said Alex drily. ‘A nun’s habit was one of her favourite disguises.’
Rosamund could not believe what she was hearing. ‘You’re not saying that Ingrid is a spy, too?’
‘I really should not be discussing such information with you,’ said Alex, feeling he needed to be alone for a while. He made for the door. ‘I must go and bathe,’ he said abruptly.
‘No! Don’t go just yet,’ said Rosamund, holding out a hand to him. ‘I would like to know how you met my brother.’
Alex flicked back a lock of damp, tawny hair and his expression was moody. ‘All right. I will do so.’
Rosamund’s heart was suddenly beating ten to the dozen.
‘It was in the port of Visby in my own country twelve years ago. I found him hiding amongst some merchandise that had been carted to the port, ready to be shipped overseas for my grandfather,’ said Alex. ‘Harry looked half-starved and was covered in sores—his clothes were just rags. It was obvious that he needed help.’
‘Poor Harry! Why was he in such a state?’ she asked in distress.
‘At that time we did not speak the other’s language, but my grandfather knew enough English to discover that Harry had escaped from a pirate ship. I might have told you a little about pirate ships already. Anyway, one can encounter many a pirate ship in the northern seas—not that their captains would appreciate being called by that name. But you will find Scottish ships raiding English merchant vessels and English ones attacking their Scottish neighbours. It is not unknown for both to mistakenly attack vessels from my own country, as well as others from the Baltic.’ He paused and held her gaze. ‘It must be stopped, for it is disastrous for trade. That is why England and Scotland are signing a Pact of Perpetual Peace and Henry is marrying off his elder daughter to James of Scotland.’ He frowned. ‘But you will want to know what happened next to Harry.’
‘We took Harry home with us and my grandmother fed him. That summer we spent getting to know each other. I taught Harry Swedish and he taught me English. We fished and sailed around the islands and were given work to do by my grandparents. Eventually Harry asked my grandfa
ther if he could find him a position on one of his ships. This he did to their mutual satisfaction. Harry and I saw less of each other after that, but the friendship that was forged that summer remained and, when possible, we met up at various ports throughout Europe.’ His voice trailed off and his expression was bleak. ‘I’ve said enough. I will leave you. Sleep well.’ He made for the door.
‘No! Wait!’ She hurried after him and seized his arm. ‘You cannot leave the story there. Tell me—where does Ingrid come in all this? Where did you both meet her?’
Alex allowed himself to be persuaded to sit down again. ‘I met her in Stockholm at a masque. She was young, lovely, charming and I believed her to be a lady.’ He fell silent.
‘And was she a lady?’ prodded Rosamund, wondering what he had been doing at this masque. Spying?
A painful smile played about his mouth. ‘That’s what she believes, but I doubt it is true. The next time we met I was with Harry and we were unloading a cargo in Visby. She looked just as lovely, but was not so well dressed. She gazed right through me as if she did not recognise me, but she spoke to Harry, asking him about the cargo.’ He frowned. ‘I could see that he was just as bewitched by her as I was that night in Stockholm. The next time we met was in Bruges and then London. It was then I began to have my suspicions about her.’
‘What suspicions? She certainly travels a lot,’ said Rosamund, almost enviously.
‘That is because sometimes she has to leave a country swiftly. She is not a real lady, but lives by her wits and has a definite gift for disguise and getting men to talk.’ He rose and said firmly, ‘I believe I’ve given you enough to mull over.’
‘Aye. But I would hear more,’ said Rosamund, wondering how much secret information Ingrid had managed to get out of him. ‘You will tell me more tomorrow?’
He did not answer, and this time, there was no keeping him.
Rosamund returned to the bed and perched on it. She had no doubt that Master Nilsson had saved her brother’s life that day in Visby. For that she would be eternally grateful. She longed to see Harry and get some answers from him about this woman, Ingrid. It seemed to her that Ingrid had truly woven a spell over both men. But for what purpose? And did she know Edward? After all, hadn’t she heard his voice at the Steel Yard? Surely he was the person who Ingrid implied would like to meet her? And where was Harry if Ingrid did not know of his whereabouts?
Rosamund prayed that he was still alive. It would have been far better for her never to have known that Harry had not drowned all those years ago than to discover now, after having such hopes of being reunited with him, that he was dead after all. She felt a lump in her throat and tears pricked the back of her eyes. She needed to talk to Master Nilsson about this matter, but no doubt he was thinking of Ingrid. Perhaps he was full of hope that they could be lovers again, now he believed her innocent of betraying him with Harry.
If only Rosamund had know it was she that was much on Alex’s mind, then she might have felt much more cheerful. As he immersed himself in hot water and rested a leg on the rim of the wooden tub, he had been shocked to realise that he no longer wanted Ingrid. He had spent too many months thinking of her with Harry and feeling hurt.
Of course, there were questions he needed to ask her, but somehow during the last week or more he had become accustomed to Mistress Appleby’s company. He thought how enjoyable it would be sharing a large tub with her. But there was no way that he could have Harry’s sister as his mistress. A pity, but there it was. He had promised to find Harry for her and he meant to keep his promise. There was still the matter of the message he had been sent and only Harry could explain that away.